Turning Old Cliches into New Maxims:
Get Serious

By Richard Eyre

Part Six

Note: This column appears every two weeks .with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column.

This one still rings in my ears!  In the deep, loud voice of my high school basketball coach.  To him basketball was life — and life was very serious.  “Come on!”  “Think!”  “Don’t make that same mistake again!”  “Set that pick like you mean it.”  “You’re not here to fool around!”  “Get serious.”

The irony of talking like this about something that was supposed to be fun never occurred to him.  Once in exasperation he even said, “What do you guys think this is, a game?”

Well it was a game, of course — and a game that is better played when people are loose rather than tense, relaxed and enjoying themselves rather than pressured and over-trying.

Life, while it is much more than a game, works in much the same way.

Most of us take ourselves far too seriously.  We turn life into a fierce competition by comparing ourselves not only with real people but with the unreal images and expectations of the media.  Leisure gets as serious and competitive as anything else.  We have to win, or at least improve, otherwise what would be the point?  We plan serious vacations (right down to the minute) so that we can maximize our time off.  We tell our children to “get serious” at the very time they are enjoying themselves most.  And we trick ourselves into thinking that seriousness is synonymous with success.


“What do you guys do for fun?”

It was a strange way to start a sophisticated business seminar.  And it looked strange too — the casual, bearded speaker, dressed in cords and a flannel shirt, talking to an audience clad in serious dark suits with patterned power ties.

But that was how he began.  He and I were the two featured speakers at a corporate “personal renewal” conference.  I was seated on the stand, behind the speaker, watching the audience.

“You guys look pretty serious to me,” my counterpart said.  “What do you do to relax?”

The audience looked a little confused, some a bit irritated.  They were here for serious renewal!  What was this?  Finally someone raised his hand.  “I play tennis.”

“Elaborate,” said the speaker.

“Well, I’m up to a four-point-five ranking and I got to the club semifinals this spring …” It was quickly obvious that this guy’s tennis was serious — even stressful.

For ten more minutes the speaker tried to get someone to come up with something simple and spontaneous and fun.  Finally he started telling his own ways of loosening up and enjoying the day-to-day.  He told some of the crazy little things he did to lighten his business travel: of paying the toll at toll booths for the car behind him and watching the surprised reaction in his rearview mirror.  Putting little “dot” stickers up in the curve of an airplane window or a public rest-room mirror so that if he was ever there again, he could remember he’d been there before.  Starting conversations with total strangers.  Paying restaurant bills anonymously for people who looked like they couldn’t afford it.

By now the faces in the audience showed a mixture of skepticism and real envy — as they realized that his message was simply that what we need to renew ourselves is not to do more but to relax more.


I love to coach six- and seven-year-olds.  Our city has a program called Biddy Basketball with a lower basket and smaller basketballs — and without scoreboards.  I learned in my first year of coaching that the kids don’t respond very well or improve very much from criticism.  Telling them not to double-dribble or pointing out their errors just causes very serious and worried looks on their little faces — and their technique actually gets worse.

What does work is to praise them and to have fun.  Every time any of them do anything even remotely promising, I tell them how well they did.  The others listen, watch, emulate.  And before each practice or game we have a standard question and answer.  “Why are we playing basketball?”  “To have fun.”

Life of course has its serious side.  But why “seriousize” the parts that don’t have to be?  Part of our seriousness is habit.  Just as “lightening up” can become a counter habit.

A sense of humor is well named.  A sense is something that can be developed.  As you try consciously to be more aware, to notice the amusing, ironic, or humorous aspects of everyday life, you sensitize yourself to the lighter side and learn to laugh more — particularly at yourself.

And lightness is an intriguing and multi-meaningful word.  As we choose a lighter approach and attitude, we shed the somber heaviness and pessimism of seriousness and brighten with wider awareness and clearer insight.  “Lightness” is the opposite of darkness as well as of heaviness.

G.  K.  Chesterton said it best, and though his quotation is now old, it can become a new maxim for today: 

                THEMSELVES LIGHTLY.

In our families we need to remember that “crisis plus time usually equals humor.”  Like the time that seven of our children spilled their milk at the same dinner, or the late-night return from a camping trip when we didn’t have a house key and had to camp one more night — in the backyard.

In our work life we need to remember that most of the hassles and small failures aren’t remembered — by others or by ourselves.

Properly viewed, people are essentially interesting and amusing.  And life is essentially beautiful and entertaining.  And we ourselves are often pretty funny.

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