Conversations in Management: Lily Tomlin

Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.

Lily Tomlin

TomlinLily Tomlin doesn’t complain more than the rest of us—she’s just funnier when she does. And that’s no surprise since she’s been at it for a long time. She got her start doing stand-up comedy in Detroit before heading to New York in 1965. As these things go, she hit the big time relatively quickly when she was picked up as a regular on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In only four years later. Two of the characters she created for that show—Ernestine and Edith Ann—were immediate favorites and have out lived the show. Ernestine is the obnoxious switchboard operator with 1940s victory roll hair. Despite the hair, Ernestine was a contemporary character. Taking calls, she was reliably condescending, unsympathetic and given to derisive snorts. Ernestine is Tomlin’s surrogate for authority figures worthy of lampooning. Edith Ann, on the other hand, is a far more empathetic creature. As played by Tomlin, she’s a five-and-a-half year old girl with wisdom that belies her years. Seated in a giant rocking chair (to give the illusion of Tomlin as a child) she makes observations about her daily life with just enough irony and sarcasm to keep them from being maudlin. For proof of her staying power, look no further than iTunes where you’ll find an Edith Ann app (no kidding—there’s an app for that). Humor is a good way of dealing with life’s frustrations and irritations, but funny or not, we might be doing too much complaining and making things worse for ourselves in the process.

How much do we complain? A recent study revealed the average adult will spend three and a half years of their life—1,278 days—kvetching. And those aren’t work days either. It’s 30,672 hours of non-stop venting. That’s a lot of complaining! With that much complaining there have to be a lot of triggers but it usually comes down to one thing—someone has offended our sense of self. But why complain? If you were born after 1895 (that would be all of us) when Freud first suggested it, you probably believe that venting your frustrations is a good way to handle them. You’ve been taught to let the anger out and tell it like it is. While this idea has a powerful hold on us, decades of scientific research has proven just the opposite. It seems venting, and its close cousin ruminating, simply intensify the bad feelings. While you might feel an immediate physiological benefit from these activities, psychologically, you come away angrier and more frustrated than ever. What’s worse, you generalize those feelings to other people and events. Let’s face it, if venting made you feel better, chronic complainers would be the most deliriously happy people you know. But that’s not the case. Complainers tend to find more things to complain about. It’s a tailspin of unhappiness.

There’s a better way. If you have a legitimate gripe—say a fly in your soup—deal with the facts of the situation and deal with the person who can make it right. Don’t simply rehash the incident. For those myriads of more general life frustrations, start by not taking things personally. If you’re upset, process your feelings—why am I angry—without ruminating about the experience. For minor irritations, just focus on something else. In almost any situation, you’re better off taking Thomas Jefferson’s advice, “When angry, count to 10 before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.” That gives you time to cool down and reframe the problem. It’s not easy to rein in the twin evils of venting and rumination, but it’s worth the effort. See if you can go a day without a single complaint. But before you get frustrated by the effort (and you will), remember Lily Tomlin’s other observation, “The road to success is always under construction.”  —Ebert  

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