In his seminal work, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living”, Dale Carnegie talks about living in “day tight compartments.”
Sharing in part the instruction of Sir William Osler early in his book, Carnegie describes how Osler, using the metaphor of a trip on an ocean liner, told his medical students at Yale to “learn to control the machinery as to live with ‘day-tight compartments’ as the most certain way to ensure safety on the voyage. Get on the bridge [of the ship], and see that at least the great bulkheads are in working order. Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting out the Past-the dead yesterdays. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the Future -the unborn tomorrows. Then you are safe-safe for today!
Shut off the past! Let the dead past bury its dead. … Shut out the yesterdays which have lighted fools the way to dusty death.
The load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past. … The future is today. … There is no tomorrow. The day of man’s salvation is now. Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about the future.
Shut close, then the great fore and aft bulkheads, and prepare to cultivate the habit of life of ‘day-tight compartments’.”
The rest of Carnegie’s book helped me a lot in my early, post-college years, as I worked to establish myself as an adult. For sure though, the basic strategy to “compartmentalize” is likely the most profound concept for me, and has been a significant factor in living a happy and productive life. It’s helped me put worry in it’s place, well behind me, neutralized.
Recently I was reflecting on this strategy and drilled down further in its application. The ability to compartmentalize helps me in (at least) three categories of my thinking.
First, it helps me be present, focusing the majority of my energy on the issues at hand, the activities of the day, the most pressing concerns of the “now.”
Being present and focused allows us to cope with the many demands we have in our daily lives: pressures at work, deadlines at school, stresses at home. The key is to close the door on the day once it’s concluded, actively release any negative energies, follow whatever process(es) you use to relax, and do so. Reset your mind, reset your soul.
Another facet of compartmentalization is as an approach to combat the possible linkage of life issues, especially in the negative sense. What I mean here is, often if something “bad” happens to us, some negative issue comes up, we may have a tendency to allow that one negative instance effect other things in our life.
This linkage is not helpful to your attitude, nor is it good for your health. Don’t allow one (or two, or three) negative circumstances dictate your outlook overall. When faced with a challenge, a bad outcome, etc., deal with the situation as best you can, debrief with others (and/or yourself) as soon as possible, and then put issue behind you. Give yourself a few minutes to gather yourself — a few deep breaths, a brief walk, whatever you need to reset yourself, and then move forward with your day.
The final area that the skill and strategy of compartmentalization can be extremely helpful is in relationships. This fact is true whether you’re considering your work colleagues, new people you meet or interact with everyday, or those most intimate relationships with friends and family.
Put succinctly, “don’t let other relationships suffer due to a few turkeys in your life.”
In other words, if you have a negative interaction with someone, whether it’s in the office, at school, or on the highway, be it with your wife, or your son, or a customer, or your boss, or the mailman, if a bad exchange occurs, don’t let it effect how you treat everyone else.
You’ll serve yourself best if your remember that you can’t control other people’s actions, their mood or what they have to say. That’s the thing with free will: we do what we want, and sometimes an individual’s actions aren’t the best. Take the same approach suggested above:
- Deal with the circumstance as best you can when it’s happening with the other person;
- Consider and solidify the most accurate assessment that you can of the instance (i.e. debrief with yourself and/or others);
- Gather yourself, reset your attitude/mood, and move on.
Altogether, following Dale Carnegie’s suggestion taken from Sir Osler’s characterization is sound advice. And in fact, that advice didn’t originate from Sir Osler, but in fact was even passed down to Osler who’d first heard the advice nearly 150 years ago.
It was Thomas Carlyle that helped Osler lead a life free from worry when Osler ready these twenty-one words: “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” And if you’re able to compartmentalize the negative things that we come across throughout life, we’ll be able to do just that.
— Footnotes —
- If you want to read from the “horse’s mouth”, as it were, here’s a link to “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.”
- Learn more about Sir William Osler here.
- Deep breaths to calm, reset, control yourself? Oh YES. Wim Hof (“The Iceman”) uses breathing as the foundation for his unique method. Read more here.
- The man behind the man behind the man? Read about Thomas Carlyle