When I was in graduate school at Columbia University fifteen years ago, I was honored to serve as the great script author Peter Stone’s Associate for the Broadway production of The Will Rogers Follies.

Peter Stone

Peter was having a birthday and his friend, brilliant performer and director Mike Nichols (his wife is the gracious Diane Sawyer), visited us during rehearsal to watch the show. Mike is a genius. He can fix any script. His opinion is respected.

Mike Nichols

Mike makes people money with his advice. After viewing a run-through of the musical, Mike gave Peter a wonderful handwritten note: “You wrote your own birthday gift.”

Peter, a tough man as hard as his last name, glowed when he read aloud to me what Mike wrote to him. It was a rare and miraculous moment of Stone’s pride bowing to his own vulnerability in the darkness of the back row of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

In a conversation with me I am certain he does not remember Mike and I briefly discussed careers and living a good life. Mike loved Arabian horses at one time in his life and he purchased them from a farm in Nebraska so we had an immediate, if fleeting, tether.

I was surprised when Mike gave me this advice: “Life is a pendulum swinging into and out of sh*t.” After getting over his blunt take on life I realized his advice was accurate.

The key to living a good and happy life is being self-aware enough in knowing which way your pendulum is swinging: Are you swinging into the sh*t — if so, hunker down, conserve, be quiet and pinch your nose — or are you swinging out of the sh*t — get ready to take chances, be bold and live aggressively without holding your breath.

Too many people make life-changing decisions the moment they’re swinging headlong into sh*t.

When I was younger I took a personality test. One of the concepts you had to define was your take on the passing of time:

A). An old woman sitting in a rocking chair.

B). A calm pond.

C). A waterfall.

I remember choosing the waterfall but now I wish Mike Nichols’ The Sh*t and the Pendulum had been a choice because as crass as it sounds it vividly rounds down all human senses and ticks away the messy, daily, routine of living an interactive life.


  1. Carla —
    You make an important and clear distinction.
    The modulation of the pendulum comes from within us. We cannot control the rate or the arc of the swinging but, I feel, we can actively generate plans that will loosen us from something in which we may be stuck.
    Make plans. Get a goal beyond where you are now that you can reach and the energy of that effort, I am certain, will get your pendulum swinging in rhythm again!

  2. You might want a bigger push than those ideas, Carla. Change jobs. Move to a new city. Go back to school someplace brand new. Uproot your body elsewhere to ignite a movement of spirit that will enliven you beyond planning and hopes of the mind alone.

  3. Chris —
    I agree suffering — awake and aware suffering — is absolutely necesary in knowing where we stand and where we’ve been and where we must go in the future.
    You are right is easier to complain about being covered in sh*t than to get your hands dirty cleaning it off.
    Pendulums are not self-sustaining. They need to be started and kept moving and if they get stuck a greater effort must be made to get things swinging again.
    An active pendulum does not protect you from the bad times — it just helps ensure there will be a predictable way out of it in the near future.

  4. Excellent post, David!
    The ‘’swinging of pendulum’’ in life is inevitable, its easy to sustain if we stay flexible. Moreover, it depends on the way we see – most of the time when we are out of our comfort zone we complain being in s…t!
    The saying goes something like ‘’change is the only constant in life;’’ but by nature I am a person who can’t embrace change very easily – so I burn my bridge behind…..that way I don’t have any other option except staying out of my comfort zone always and embrace the ‘’swinging…!’’ 🙂

  5. Oh and am I the only one making a connection with the literary allusion between Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” and the title of today’s post, “The Sh*t and the Pendulum?”

  6. My take on accepting change in life is like: the cost of retreating should be so high that I have to move forward…..always! 😀
    And you know what, sometimes the internal inertia makes us so lethargic that we start feeling comfortable even being in s***t. The best way to come out of it is to block the road of feeling comfortable! The support system is very important though!

  7. stella!
    It is an analogy that has stayed with me and I think of it often when moments turn dim — because I know if I keep moving the darkness will not last.
    Thanks for that fine link! Steve Jobs is another one of those SuperGeniuses!

  8. Katha —
    Yes, the old chestnut “you can never go home again” is a worthwhile example of how to life a forward-thinking life without returning to the false comforts of the past. When things get tough it is often easier to race back to the familiar instead of facing the unknown.

  9. Hey clem!
    Yes, same guy. Mike Nichols and Elaine May were the famous comedy duo “Nichols and May” in the 1950’s.
    I believe their first album “Improvisations to Music” came out in 1958. You can do a search for “Mike Nichols and Elaine May” on music services to download and listen to their comedy sketches.

  10. You are quite right, clem!
    Funny is never old and never out of style: “The Three Stooges” and “The Marx Brothers” and “I Love Lucy” are all quick examples of the enduring courage of laughter.

  11. That’s a fabulous way of looking at life and so very accurate. Just recently I was marveling at how quickly life can change from good to bad, easy to hard, happy to sad and back again. In my case, we are definitely swinging out of the sh!t. Into what? I don’t know exactly. Good fortune? Good times? Whatever it is…we’re out of the sh!t for now and I’m lovin’ it 🙂

Comments are closed.