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Occupying Time - Fleas on a Dog

When Apollo astronauts travelled to the moon, they had the rarest of opportunities to view the entire earth from a distance.  From the windows of their spacecraft, the Earth was a gleaming sphere of blue, green, brown, and white.  From that view, there was nearly trace of mankind  visible from their position.  None of the strife of war, famine, or human sprawl could be seen or identified.

"The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me—a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance."
— Frank Borman, Apollo 8, 'A Science Fiction World—Awesome Forlorn Beauty,' Life magazine, 17 January
These brave astronauts also couldn't notice any of the happenings of everyday life.  Traffic Jams, late trains, commuter flights, snow days, people rushing, or people dying.  It was as if everyone on Earth were merely fleas on a dog.  The existence and movement of people wasn't discernable in the least, and only subtle effects of our existence were viewable from space.

"We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you've ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itselfall behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are, but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy loving here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself."
Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut, interview for the 2007 movie In the Shadow of the Moon.
There is one thing that I find very interesting in my job as a middle manager; every place I have worked, co-workers and direct reports have always expressed their frustration regarding their job, their interaction with others, disappointments in their careers, etc.  Even I have fallen into a rut from time to time, and have needed to vent to someone about issues that brought me down in spirit.  What always helped me, and I hope has helped others is to put into perspective the events, or even people that are aggravating us.

Most importantly, as big as our problems may be, there are people in this world that would kill just to have them.  There are people everyday simply scratching to stay alive amidst poverty, genocide, war, and famine.  They are living in conditions everyday that we couldn't stand for even a single hour. Billions are lacking sanitary living conditions, fresh water, enough food, the ability to work, or even something as seemingly trivial to see a flag, demonstrating the sheer sovereignty that too many Americans take for granted. 

If you are down in the dumps because of a lost promotion, an aggravating co-worker, or even a lost job; just think for a moment what it is like to be in the conditions that approximately 2.6 billion people in the world fall into this category (  From outer space, all of our problems in this world are impossible to see, even the gruesome reality that some are forced to endure.  Most certainly, our petty problems are even more obscured by the vanity of our busy, rushed lives.

In perspective, we are merely fleas on a dog, invisible from a distance, scurrying around living our lives.  Some people spend their whole lives trying to go down in history, establish a legacy, or simply attempt to immortalize themselves by placing their names on buildings.  The overwhelming fact is that too few people are ever remembered this way, and the cost of this pursuit is more than people would have bargained for if the price was given to them up front.  Ask yourself, what we are all doing here?

When people I know vent to me about their problems, I share with them the visualization of how small our problems really are when viewed from afar.  To me, all we are all doing everyday is occupying time.  Whether we are working, playing, sleeping, eating, shopping, or gossiping, we are really just occupying our time.  We are born, we live, and eventually we will die.  There is no escape from these facts.  What we do while living is what really counts.  The part of our lives we spent at work should be to simply afford the way we live, spend time with family, and ultimately occupy our time in a focused, quality manner. 

Take a metaphysical moment and ask yourself a few questions:

What are you going to do from the time you are born, until the time you leave this world behind? 

What are the most important things in your life?  Family? Friends? Community?

How fortunate do you feel that your problems aren't nearly as severe as finding your next meal, or a safe place to sleep the night?

Why do you spend time with regrets of your past instead of planning what you can do tomorrow?

The whole point of these questions isn't to dismiss the importance of our jobs as managers, but to put in perspective the petty rivalries, disappointments, and the unrealistic expectations we can have with ourselves.  We all have responsibilities to fulfill, goals to achieve, and development to undertake.  We also need to take seriously those aspirations of our direct-reports and the expectations of our superiors.  In the end-game however, we need to occupy our time, and use it to its fullest.  Don't waste a day with regrets or well-wishes.  Take inventory of what is important, and what you are doing everyday to so those things through. 

Billions of fleas is what we truly are, but we are still interacting with each other, ultimately occupying our time on this big blue dog.  Don't waste time sweating the small stuff, agonizing over things we cannot change while stepping over the things we can.  What that is, is for you to find out.
From City Slickers



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