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The Monk And The Pillow – First in a 5-part series entitled, How We Do “Hard.”


The Monk and The Pillow

It was June 11th 1963 in Saigon, Vietnam.

In the intersection near the Presidential Palace, a crowd of monks gathered in a circle, in anticipation of what was about to happen, and to prevent anyone from stopping it.

The monks were protesting the oppression of their religious freedom, and today, they decided to do something about it.

As a small, blue car pulled to a stop, the crowd of orange-clad, bald monks parted, and closed behind it – like some colored, flowing, organic, living mass embracing what was about to come.

Out of the blue car climbed three monks, also wearing iconic orange robes. Two were young men, and one older, who needed some help.

At 66, the older monk, Thich Quang Duc, moved a bit slower than his friends.

As Duc got out of the car, the two men brought out a translucent jerrycan filled with some type of sloshing liquid. The elder monk brought a pillow from the car, and gingerly placed it on the hard surface of the intersection before sitting down into the lotus position.

Thích Quảng Đức - Wikipedia
Thich Quang Duc

And He Started To Pray

After a moment, his friends took the jerrycan filled with what turned out to be gasoline and poured it over Duc’s arms, shoulders and body – being careful to keep it from his head and face. When the young men stepped away, Duc calmly reached into his robes, took a match, and lit it.

In the blink of an eye, he was engulfed in a yellow, flowing, searing, ferocity of flames which captured and made manifest the rage of his fellow monks.

It was a windy day, and one could see the monk as the flames flowed around him.  And amid the inferno, Duc did not move. He didn’t call out. He didn’t flinch.  He continued to sit in the lotus position as if there were no flames at all.

The only movement was after about 10 minutes, when his charred remains toppled and fell backwards, his body nothing but charred skin and bone.  Laying now on his back, his arms looked as if they were pointed skyward – pleading.

Duc’s act changed the course of politics in Vietnam and forced the ouster of President Ngô Đình Diệm.

Is there something we can learn from Duc’s act?  Any lesson in character? Decision-making? Conviction?  Was it heroic? Cowardly? Vane? Inspirational? Or something else completely?

And what do we make of his bringing a pillow, knowing full well that his life would end in only a few moments?

The Genesis of The Alternative Response Method

I’ve been studying, eating, breathing, and dissecting decision-making my entire life.  In the first 20 or so years there really was no intellectual component, it was all intuitive.  The product of a challenging childhood; I had no choice but to figure things out on my own.

But then, over time, I became obsessed with how humans make optimal decisions, and my intuition became bolstered by study and intellectual evaluation.  After another 35 years, I wrote my first book, The Art of Quality Decision-Making and launched my consulting firm The Alternative Response Method (ARM).

In developing ARM, I tried to capture the best practices of those who make a living from making good decisions, where failure to do so leads to death, or other substantial consequence.  This includes the military, NASA, Aviation, sports and other remarkable acts and individuals, such as the monk and his pillow.

Out of necessity, ARM is nuanced and complex, and it is idiosyncratic.  Each one of us is different from one another, and therefore makes decisions differently.

But don’t be deterred.  ARM is complex, but so was learning to ride a bike, drive a car, or any other activity you’ve ever performed and now enjoy, take for granted and now do intuitively.  The same will be with ARM.

And what is more fundamental, meaningful, and directional to your life than the decisions you make?

The Three Pillars of ARM

The Alternative Response Method is built upon three pillars.

  • Principles
  • Flipcharting
  • ARM Tools

Principles are those things we follow to keep us on track while we learn to make better decisions, the first two are “It’s all your fault” and “your feelings aren’t your friends.”*

Flipcharting is simply the act of identifying a challenge and then writing it down on a piece of paper or your favorite app, after which we apply ARM tools to address the challenge:

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ARM tools, and the number grows every day.

For the purposes of this blog, we will be talking about only one:


A typical definition of benchmarking is to measure or evaluate some level of performance by a specific standard.  How fast is my car compared to a competitor?  I ran a mile in 8 minutes six months ago.  How fast can I run a mile today? Within our family, there is a running joke among our three adult daughters:  Who is the best parent, me or my lovely wife Michelle?  Sadly, and appropriately, I always lose.

But you get the picture.

Like many notions within ARM, we borrowed the word and tweaked it a bit, leaning heavily on Bruce Lee’s missive, “Take that which works from anyplace you find it.”

Within ARM we define benchmarking for the purposes of this blog to be:

“Your attitude towards yourself in relation to external facts.”

What do I mean?

Allow me a few examples.

Fear Of Failure

I’ll start with a very simple example and use myself.  When I go to the gym or train in martial arts, there are always people better than me in terms of training or level of fitness, or both.  When I train, and do poorly against my fellow martial artists, I am benchmarking up. I am looking at the fact that those set of individuals are better than I am and, therefore, am disappointed in my performance.  When I am working out at the gym, I can look around and see people who are more fit and be disappointed that I am not fitter.

However, in martial arts, I can also look at the set of students that I can best, as with training at the club, I can look at those less fit than myself.  From my perspective, both views are 100% accurate. They are both facts. There are people better trained than me, and worse.  There are those who are fitter than me, and those less fit.

I remember one morning at the club, struggling to do what normally would have been a routine workout.  As I moved from the elliptical to weights, I saw a woman who was in her 40s, walking and obese to the point of having to use a cane.  She was working with a personal trainer.  I saw the effort, pain, and determination on her face as she worked weights above her head. I was deeply moved. I could not imagine how difficult coming to the club and working through her pain must be.  And the long road she must face in terms of improving her health.  Her presence inspired me, and shamed me, that I was lamenting an off-day at the gym.

We get to decide what data we choose to embrace to motivate us to do better, to feel better about ourselves, and to develop a strategy to excel in any dimension we choose.

If the monk on the pillow can choose to behave as if there is no fire at all, what are we able to accomplish and focus upon should we choose to be more mindful and strategic about our lives and the decisions we make?

Let’s broaden the example to something that I suspect many of us have struggled with at some point and is particularly relevant due to the state of our economy.  And within this example, we’re going to use all three pillars of ARM.

I am 61 and still years away from retirement.  Many of my friends are financially much better off than I.  They are taking extravagant trips, buying summer or winter homes, and many have the means to retire, but continue to work as they enjoy what they do.

I don’t have that option.

If I allow it, observations of these facts can lead to a little pity party for myself.

I used to feel this way often.  That I was unable to pay for my three-daughter’s college.  That I was not a better provider.  That Michelle must continue working in order for us to maintain our living standard. But it no longer happens.  Those demons of self-doubt, regret, second-guessing, those flawed feelings no longer have a home in my mind.

Benchmarking, and using ARM, provides me a clear, accurate framework so that I can strategically find a path forward towards improving our situation, as well as choosing how I want to respond to the facts around me.

ARM Implementation

Here’s how we can apply ARM to whatever challenge you choose, and how I used it here.

Principle #1 is “It’s all your fault.”

So, my bad feelings.  My feelings of inadequacy. Failure and perhaps jealously are my responsibility to manage. No one put them on or in me.  They are borne from my accurate evaluation of the data, that many of my friends are financially better off than I am.

However all of those feelings reside in one place – between my ears.  And if they live between my ears, there’s something I can do about it.

So, by recognizing and embracing the concept of “It’s All My Fault” I moved on to pillar 2, Flipcharting.

I’ve identified the issue as my feelings of inadequacy.  And, as we know from principle #2, my feelings are not my friends.

I take out a piece of paper and write on top something along the lines of, “I’m feeling inadequate financially as compared to my friends.”

Once we name the issue, how do we address it?  By using ARM tools.

My goal is to feel better about myself and what I’ve accomplished and not begrudge anyone of their success or good fortune.  My goal is to look at all of the facts associated with this issue and not the ones that tend to demotivate me or otherwise reduce my overall happiness and bliss.

But how do I do that?

As they say in the movie Cool Hand Luke, I needed to “…get my mind right.”

These feelings were real, but they were not my friends, and I chose moderate them.

So, one of the tools I used was benchmarking.

Just the facts ma’am

While it was true, in fact, that many of my friends were financially better off, not all of them were.  I was choosing to look at those individuals that happened to be better off.  I had many friends who were not as fortunate as I.

I could use Benchmarking to:

  1. Compare myself to friends who haven’t done as well.
  2. Compare myself to the entire world? I won the lottery being born in America and am more financially stable than 98% of the entire world.
  3. Understand that my family and I are healthy and chose to make financial concerns simply less important.
  4. Embrace the concept of we have enough.
  5. Compare myself to all humans who have lived before.
  6. Compare myself to past kings of the world, who didn’t have the same resources that we do. They couldn’t for example, go to a store and buy an apple.
  7. Understand that I can still own the most sophisticated technology in the world, an iPhone, or can go to the store and buy fresh produce.
  8. Understand that life is fleeting and that no one gets out of here alive.
  9. Understand how miraculous that us humans are here at all, living in a sliver of atmosphere in a sea of nothingness that doesn’t support human life.
  10. I could picture the monk – and quit whining about my predicament.
  11. Look back at when I nearly died SCUBA diving and that, from that point on, everything is a gift.
  12. I can look at the general condition of others.
  13. Read the news on all the tragedy and be grateful for whatever I have, and simply count my blessings.

The list could go on for pages.  And this is the part of ARM which is idiosyncratic. This list has meaning to me. Some, or none, of these ARM tools may work for you.  But the point is, something will.

If you identify a challenge, write it down on your flipchart, and are serious about addressing the challenge strategically, then you will begin to develop tools to overcome the challenge.

A Quote From Teddy Roosevelt

There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to “mean” horses and gunfighters; but acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.

I suspect if Teddy was still around, and he knew about ARM, he would say he took responsibility for his fear (It’s all your fault.”) Put fear on his flipchart, and then developed his tools (pretending clearly was one) until he “…ceased to be afraid.”

Sadly, I had a friend years ago whose both parents had died within a few years of each other.  She had become their primary caretaker.  I asked her to lunch where I lovingly asked if she had considered seeing a therapist, as it was clear she was still deeply in mourning.  She became angry and yelled, “Why do people keep telling me to see someone?  This is my pain.  No one can tell me how long I should mourn!”

She had limited capacity and, sadly, was unable to see a path forward.  First, she was unwilling to work with mentors – those people who help guide us when we are unable or unwilling to see.  And she chose to act intuitively.  Her feelings were, clearly, not her friends.  And she chose not to benchmark. I pointed out to her that if there were a 1,000 people who were in exactly her same position, that there would be a bell curve of how they responded.  Some would mourn for two weeks, and some for 20 years.  She could, if she, wished, and with my help, find a better way to respond.  She could, for example, benchmark.

Sadly, she was immersed in her pain, and her non-decisional, unkind feelings, and never really recovered. Why?  Because she chose not to.

Another client was exceptionally successful in real estate.  Yet she was stuck in the imposter syndrome and was unable to clearly see her self worth.   She could not clearly see the skill and talent she had amassed.  Nor a path forward beyond her current position.

Together we looked at the data, what she had accomplished and what she was truly capable of (her trending capacities).  She benchmarked herself against others who were more successful, and less talented, and she finally recognized that her feelings of doubt and hesitations were what we call within ARM, non-decisional variables.  So, she set those feelings aside, and moved forward in a different, far more successful and fulfilling career path.

There Is Always An Alternative Way to Respond

When we use the ARM framework, we begin to learn that we can develop an alternative, and better, response to any challenge we face.  An Alternative Response, as it were.

Just the other day I was talking to a friend who was angry that he had to pay for a $5,000 MRI out of pocket as he had severe tinnitus.  He was angry at spending so much, until his daughter said, “Papa, you don’t have a brain tumor.  You don’t have a blood clot. That’s the best money you’ve spent in years!”  She took it a step further.  Her son, his grandson, had been at death’s door a few weeks earlier from covid with complications. He teared up as he described the three-week old saying, “He looked like a spider, with all of the tubes and lines coming out of his tiny body and with his arms strapped down.”  She said, “Papa, your grandson did not die.”

And my friend told me that when his daughter said that, he fell to his knees and broke down crying.  A brave, robust, resilient man who hadn’t cried like that, ever.

This is the power of benchmarking.  This is the power of putting challenges into perspective.

It was all because of benchmarking, which brings us back to the pillow and the monk.

I used to be nervous about public speaking, but now only rarely, if at all.  Why? Benchmarking.  If Duc can bring such a profound, moving and entirely incomprehensible calm to what he was going to do, and, bring a pillow, so that he would be comfortable doing it, I think I can get up in front of a group of people and have a chat.

How can you use benchmarking, and ARM, to find a different path forward to a challenge that you have been facing?

The last ARM tool, or concept, we’re going to talk about in this blog is that within ARM we look back for only two reasons:  to learn something, or to remember happy things.

Which brings us to my next blog in this five-part series, “Twister Fart” where I share a monumental embarrassing moment and talk about how I can look back at it without cringing or, at least, not cringing too much.


These blogs are 100% for your benefit.  Please let me know your thoughts on Duc’s actions in general.  Noble, or something else? Why did he bring a pillow? What are your thoughts on benchmarking or any other notions of ARM?  Or share your challenges.

Let’s make this a dialogue so we can work together to make the world just a little bit better, kinder and empathetic.

*Within ARM we use the principal of “your feelings are not your friends” only to emphasize that our feelings do not always have our best interest at heart. One of the characteristics of a good friend is that they have our back.  They want what’s best for us. They are consistent.  That’s not true with our feelings.  They sometimes help us, and sometimes hurt us and lead us to make poor decisions. We use this principle to remind us that our feelings must be vetted like any external data point and be evaluated to determine whether our feelings are decisional, or non-decisional. 

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Thank you for this blog. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and look forward to the following articles. There are so many thoughts generated from your words, and I am sure all who read this interpret things in different ways reflecting on their own life experiences.

    1. Hi Bob, Thank you so much for taking the time to respond and for your kind words. I hope you enjoy the remaining 4 blogs in the 5-part series.


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