I love the idea of air travel: moving effortlessly in speed and comfort to a distant destination. But in travel — as in work and career and life itself — reality does not neatly conform to expectation.
I was looking forward to a recent flight over the heartland of the country. I had selected a window seat, which I love because I can watch the amazingly varied topography crawl past, and I was imagining several hours of productive work reading and writing with an occasional glance at the world below as a welcome distraction. However, a missed connection led to me being assigned to a different flight altogether. No big deal, I thought. I could afford a couple of hours of delay; no need to get distressed about it.
When I boarded the new flight, though, I could imagine how much less pleasant this trip was going to be. I was assigned to a middle seat, and the elderly gentleman next to me kept the window shade drawn, as if to block the sun’s life-stealing powers. A mother traveling with two young children was seated directly behind me. I’m a parent, so the cries of newborns on airplanes do not bother me in the least; I barely even hear them. But verbal expressions of sibling rivalry are like nails on chalkboard, and these two children were just at that stage at which neither could allow the other to appear superior. Then, once I had settled comfortably in my seat, I was unsettled when a man of substantial girth wedged himself into the aisle seat next to me. I had to lean towards the window to avoid unintended intimacy.
As the plane reached capacity, a complication arose. Passengers seated a few rows behind me had taken what had appeared to be unoccupied seats, so that spouses could sit together; it turned out that there were not going to be any unoccupied seats, and the flight attendants ended up trying to mediate seat-shuffling in order to find an arrangement that would suit everyone. I considered volunteering my seat, as a way of getting myself out from between the vampire and the leviathan, but my middle seat was not even worth bidding with. As this was happening, the head flight attendant got on the intercom to make an announcement: we all had to get off the plane. There was a mechanical issue and it was not clear that it could be repaired. Once we had all laboriously debarked, it became clear that it could not be. We had to wait for another plane.
An hour later, we were all at another gate, boarding another plane, this time with strict instructions to sit only in our assigned seats. I knew there would be no chance of avoiding my dark, crowded hole. As we boarded, it occurred to me what an apt metaphor this was for the workplace. Even when we enter with great expectations, the reality is we cannot always control where we will be placed, and we can rarely select who we will be dealing with. People, in particular, can have an outsized influence on our comfort, enjoyment, and effectiveness. An overly talkative or unnecessarily antagonistic seatmate can distract us from attending to our intended tasks, whether we are on an A230 or in a cubicle farm. You may still get to your destination — although, in extreme cases both in flight and in your career, you might find yourself diverted instead — but doing so without aggravation requires a certain amount of forbearance, friendliness, and flexibility on everyone’s part.
And remember that reality does not neatly conform to expectation, and that works both ways. While reboarding the new plane, one of the passengers who had been on standby for yet another flight discovered that he had made it, and his empty seat enabled the flight attendants to easily find an acceptable arrangement for the two separated couples. The two snippy children behind me settled down during the in-flight movie (Iron Man 3, which amusingly retained all of its smash-bang comic book violence except for obviously excising any scenes in which aircraft — even the bad guys’ helicopters — were taken down), and remained peaceful the rest of the flight. I didn’t even mind having the window screen down while the movie was playing (okay, so I wasn’t quite as work-driven as I’d planned, but it was only half the flight and I still got a lot done), and the window-seat occupant actually opened it halfway once the movie was done. And the large gentleman on my other side — well, he didn’t get any smaller, but he turned out to be quite polite and genial and we had an interesting conversation as the plane descended towards our destination.
We would have arrived there in any case, but the quality of the journey matters, too.