What is in your backpack?

Aug. 13, 2010

By Denise Ciardello and Janice Janssen

Have you heard the phrase “she comes with a lot of baggage”? It’s been said regarding a single mom, or a potential employee who had issues with a previous job. What is your definition of “baggage” regarding people? Is it a positive or negative description? The historic definition of baggage according to Wikipedia is any number of bags, cases, and containers that hold a traveler’s articles during transit.

At what point did it begin to pertain to people? In the 2009 movie “Up in the Air,” the main character, Ryan, played by George Clooney, is a motivational speaker, but not your typical motivational speaker. He begins his talks by asking the audience to imagine filling up a backpack with all their worldly things. These things may be a computer, bed, table, chairs, towels, sofa, etc. “Feel the weight of the straps on your shoulders as you continue to add items to the bag. Now let’s pretend it’s on fire … what would you pull out? And please don’t say photos because photos are for those with a poor memory.”

I don’t currently have a poor memory, but perhaps someday I will, so I rank photos high on my list. But they are second only to the butter bowl that my great grandpa gave my great grandma on their first anniversary in 1894. Sappy, I know, but that’s part of my baggage.

The movie continues with Ryan going through his life trying to be emotionally disconnected from anyone. He travels all the time, so according to him he is not alone, he is constantly surrounded by people. These people do not expect him to send Christmas gifts or birthday cards or babysit their kids. His goal in life is to reach 10 million miles with a particular airline; yet, once he reaches his goal, there is no one for him to share it with.

What is your baggage? A dear friend going through cancer treatment, a sister going through a tough time who needs you to listen, a spouse struggling with a job/career change, a child who is sick or having trouble in school? Although others may see these things as negative, to you they can be empowering.

The definition of baggage in all these cases is that they cause you to be totally committed. You’re in, heart and soul, and would give anything to ease the loved one’s road. If this seems weak, it may be because an outsider does not realize the depth of that relationship. Some people just need a “cause” to be concerned about, but regardless, they are in, heart and soul.

“Up in the Air” continues with Ryan telling the audience to then put family, friends, business associates, and acquaintances into the bag. He asks, is it heavy? He wants to know why you need all those people. They just weigh you down, he states. And yet our relationships, whether intimate or social, friend or family, make us who we are. Humans are social creatures that require interaction with others, the touch of another, and the exchange of ideas. We are not designed to be an island. We feed off others’ emotions.

Have you ever seen one person with a negative outlook change the tone of an entire group? Emotions are contagious. Mr. Negative may go on a rant about how the traffic is always bad or the elevator is broken and he climbed three flights of stairs carrying all his work and lunch, while the group rolls their eyes and allows him to continue. No one wants to stop him for fear that his wrath will be redirected. His ranting can set the tone of a meeting.

What baggage do you project onto other people? Are you Mr. Negative? Are you Chicken Little and the sky is always falling because you love crisis mode? Or do you see life through rose-colored glasses and everything is great and outstanding? Your baggage is your way of dealing with situations, be they good or bad, happy or sad, positive or negative.

Are you looking for a rotten egg or a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? You and only you can choose how you deal with situations that happen in your life. If it seems like there is always a black cloud over your head, maybe it’s because you’ve chosen to put that black cloud in your backpack. It’s time to take a look at what is really in your backpack. Set it on fire and pull out only the true things that you want in your life. Then reload your NEW backpack, put it on, and wear it proudly. The straps won’t seem quite as heavy, and hopefully you will have lost that black cloud. Let the sun shine through. Don’t be surprised if others are not as committed to your cause. After all, it’s your baggage, not theirs.

Denise Ciardello and Janice Janssen are professionals in the dental consulting industry and the cofounders of Global Team Solutions, a practice management consulting firm specializing in team building and team training. They can be reached at [email protected], (314) 644-8424, [email protected], or (210) 862-9445.