The Joy of Being Bald

“Bald.” Even I can’t say the word without smirking. If you use it to describe someone - That bald guy over there - it sounds like an insult, or a joke.

So when, in my first year of college, I noticed more hair than usual on the brush and in the sink, it made me deeply unhappy. It made me feel that way for a long time.

The man in the mirror

I fought the change. Different medicines to try and fix it. Different styles to hide it. Always that tension. Every time I looked in the mirror. Every time I showered or noticed someone else’s hair. Any reference to me losing my hair would drive me into an angry spiral.

This simple physical change, something quite common, made me unhappy in varying degrees every day throughout the day.

I would never have thought to write about it until I recently read Triggers, a book about changing behaviors by the well-regarded consultant Marshall Goldsmith.

How hard it is to change

In the first pages of the book, Marshall writes about what it was like becoming bald at a young age.

“Since high school I had been a follicly challenged man, but back then I was loath to admit it. Each morning, I would spend several minutes in front of the bathroom mirror carefully arranging the wispy blond strands of hair still remaining on the top of my head. I’d smooth the hairs forward from back to front, then curve them to a point in the middle of my forehead, forming a pattern that looked vaguely like a laurel wreath. Then I’d walk out into the world with my ridiculous comb-over, convinced I looked normal like everyone else.”

He used his personal story as an example of how hard it is to change. Why do people keep doing what they do, even if doing it it makes them unhappy?

“I had spent years fretting and fussing with my hair. That’s a long time to continue doing something that, on the spectrum of human folly, fell somewhere between vain and idiotic. And yet I persisted in this foolish behavior for so many years because (a) I couldn’t admit that I was bald, and (b) under the sway of inertia, it felt easier to continue doing my familiar routine than to execute the change. The one advantage I had was (c) I knew how to execute the change.”

Then there was a mistake at the barbershop. Despite explicit instructions, the barber had cut more than he was supposed to. At that moment, Marshall Goldsmith decided to accept what had been staring him in the face for so long, and he had the rest of his hair cut short.

"Liberating"

It has taken me decades, but now I no longer think about being bald. No hiding it. No shame. It’s a part of me, and I’ve grown to like it.

Marshall Goldsmith, 65 years old when he wrote his story, reflected on the importance of his change in perspective.

“It wasn’t a complicated decisions and it didn’t take great effort to accomplish…But in many ways, it is still the most liberating change I’ve made as an adult. It made me happy…”

It’s such a trivial example, I know. People deal with so many more meaningful things. Yet I’m struck by how something so small could affect me for so long. How simply loving what is allowed me to be happier and focus my energy on things I could control, like eating well and exercising, like the quality of the work that I do. It’s “liberating,” as Marshal Goldsmith wrote.

Sometimes freedom is just a switch in your head.

The Joy of Being Bald

Loving What Is

I’m sitting in the park on a gorgeous day, and I see a young mother trying to restrain her 1-year old son from making his way toward the grass. He’s happy and excited, and the mother is getting increasingly upset.

“Wait. Wait. WAIT. Wait. You’re not following directions!! Sit! Wait. Wait.”

The boy simply saw the grass and wanted to go there. But the mother couldn't accept that.

It was a laughable scene, until I realized I was doing the same thing every day throughout the day.

“Make a right on Warren.”

We’re coming down West Street and we’re almost home. My wife makes a simple suggestion: “Make a right on Warren.” It’s a block ahead of where I normally turn.

I’m instantly annoyed, and I show it. We’ve had this conversation before. She thinks she can optimize the route based on the lights and save us a few seconds. Why does she care where I turn? Why is she always optimizing everything? She should think about something else!

It’s such a small thing, and yet I can feel my body tense up as I express my irritation. I immediately regret my reaction, but it’s too late. It seems like I'm wired to respond that way.

Loving What Is

Well, after 51 years, I may have discovered a remedy. I found it in a book recommended by my good friend Eve (note to self: always read what Eve recommends).

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, “enables you to see what’s troubling you in an entirely different light” by having you ask yourself “four questions that can change your life.”

Loving What Is

It sounds ambitious, but it’s quite simple, and the many dialogs between the author and a wide range of individuals helps you see how to apply it.

The main premise is that suffering tends to come not from what happens but from what we think about what happens and what we think should happen. My wife’s suggestion about where to turn was simple and harmless, but it triggered a set of thoughts that made me upset.

What if I could train myself to think differently?

Doing The Work

Byron Katie refers to applying the ideas in her book as “The Work.” The first step is to complete a worksheet with judgments you’re making about someone. Here's a common example.

My boss should appreciate me more.

I want him to give me more recognition and praise for my work.

He should be more caring.

I need him to see the big picture and not focus on small things.

I don’t want to get any more urgent emails from him about things that aren’t important.

Then, armed with four questions, you practice inquiry to dive into those judgments:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Then you turn the statements around in various ways to examine them more deeply. For example:

I should appreciate me more.

I should appreciate my boss more.

The triggers for me tend to be when I apply “should” and “need” to other people. They tend to pit me against reality and, as Byron Katie says, “you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

I've been practicing doing The Work for a few weeks now, and I'm noticeably calmer. My wife’s suggestion is just a suggestion. An email from the boss is just an email. I can’t know their thinking or their story. It’s my thinking and judgements that are the problem. If I embrace what is, then I change my thinking and I feel happier.

Next time, I’ll make the right turn on Warren. And I’ll smile.