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Secret #31: Managing Ourselves

A fried chicken sandwich with pickles, bacon, and cheddar cheese.

Making our way through the madness without going mad.

By Ari Weinzweig

The great 20th-century business writer Peter Drucker (he wrote 39 books before passing away in the fall of 2005) said, “That one can truly manage other people is by no means adequately proven. But one can always manage oneself.” Drucker’s dry humor always makes me smile. More poignant, though, might be this anecdote from Holocaust survivor, author, and psychologist, Edith Eva Eger: “On our way to Auschwitz my mother said something I never forgot. She said: ‘We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just remember, no one can take away from you what you put here in your own mind.’” I can’t really imagine what Eger and others were dealing with as they were suddenly pulled from their everyday lives (in her case, part of a “successful” middle-class family in Budapest) and put on trains for Auschwitz. She and her sisters survived the camps. Her parents did not. But people like Eger and the stories they tell, the positive outcomes they arrived at out of such horrible situations, inspire me now more than ever. 

Managing ourselves during a difficult time.

Right now, I think it’s safe to say that literally everyone we know is struggling. No one has been through this before. No one knows what to do. Everyone, I choose to believe, wants to do the right thing. We just don’t know what that is. Which makes Dr. Eger’s mother’s statement all the more accurate. As she said, we don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. And all we can really do is manage the way we respond to the difficult and unexpected reality into which all of us have been immersed. 

I spent about half a lifetime messing up many parts of my own self-management, then, much later, studying like crazy to figure out how to do it better. And, later still, deciding to share what I’d learned by writing Managing Ourselves, teaching ZingTrain classes and seminars, and giving keynote addresses, I do know that how we handle ourselves through this is all we can really manage effectively. This is the self-management Dr. Drucker was recommending half a century ago. While experts have helpful advice, no one can tell you or me or anyone how to feel as we stumble and struggle our way through it all. What we feel is always real, even if what we fear or believe may not ever happen the way we’d worried it would. As the marvelously insightful Chilean scientist Humberto Maturana said, “There is no virtual life of emotions.” 

Understanding the things we can and cannot manage.

Rebecca Solnit, whose writing has long inspired me, says that “History is like the weather.” Ironically, when I teach seminars on self-management, I’ve long been saying, “Emotions are like the weather. We can’t control them. We don’t even have any influence. All we can do is alter how we respond.” What we do know is, as Dr. Eger’s mother said, that we can manage what we put in our heads. The material in Part 3 of the Guide to Good Leading, A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves, is a lot of what I’ve learned on how to do that, imperfectly, under duress. While I’ve never self-managed through a pandemic, the essays in the book—mindfulness, managing ourselves, free choice, creativity, along with daily practices like journaling, jogging, and talking to friends—they all matter, now maybe more than ever. 

Managing Ourselves can help!

This morning, by total coincidence, as I was writing this, I got an email from a physician, a longtime ZCoB supporter and ZingTrain client, who lives in my hometown of Chicago. “Just was reading your Managing Ourselves book this a.m. for ‘therapy.’ Really helpful to have a chance to step back during these unusual times and do some self-reflection. I’m definitely doubling down on a few of your tips.”

If you want to read a longer interview about what’s in the 400+ pages that make up Part 3email me, and I’ll send it your way. If you have questions that I can be of help with, email at will. If you have ideas about how to get through this, definitely send those too—I’ll take all the help I can get. Part 3 is up on the ZingTrain site. If a big book is overwhelming, the Managing Ourselves essay, Secret #31, is out in pamphlet form too—the single off the album, so to speak. We also have it on the Zingerman’s Press site as a PDF. And hey, if you can’t go out like you usually do, maybe this is a good time to do more reading?

Whether you read the book or not, the work towards more effective self-management always makes a difference, all the more so in difficult times like these. To wit, I’ll leave you with more words that Dr. Eger’s mother shared with her young daughter en route to Auschwitz: “Practice every day and say to yourself: I am powerful. Don’t react, but think. Never shoot from the hip. Don’t allow people to get to you. You don’t have to invite people for dinner, but see the humanity in them.”

Check out Ari’s full list of secret pamphlets!