Keep Calm and Carry On (a personal lesson of emotional intelligence)
Just over a year ago I missed a flight, due to a series of events over which I had very little or no control.
I had been in London for the week. The first few days were spent work-shopping ideas with colleagues for exciting new products and then on the last two days I delivered a course for Enterprise Architects during which the delegates and I had lots of discussions around Emotional Intelligence and emotional self-control. And so there was some irony in having my own levels of patience and ability to control a stressful situation tested less than 24-hours after the discussions had ended.
I had booked to fly out of Stansted Airport which is situated about 35-miles to the North East of London. It is not uncommon for commuters to take a designated express train out of London to Stansted. These fast trains usually run every 15-minutes and the journey takes around 40-minutes. I had bought a return ticket for the Stansted Express when I arrived in the UK on the previous Saturday and had planned to take the trip in reverse to connect with my flight home. So it was all arranged and straightforward…well, it should have been!
I arrived at the Station to take the train to the airport in good time however, I was soon informed that there had been a fatality on the rail line just minutes before my train was due to depart and so all services to Stansted were suspended. The rail staff had no idea when the line would be re-opened so I had to take a contingency route which in reality meant taking a taxi. I knew that this mode of transport would severely impact my time of arrival at the airport as although the distance between the two points is not necessarily that far, I would have to rely on the taxi’s ability to compete with London’s heavy traffic flow and numerous traffic light systems to get me there in-time. I needed to find a taxi with a knowledgeable driver and find one quickly.
I began to feel stressed.
Murphy’s law roughly assumes that ‘if anything can go wrong, it will.’ As I recount the situation, I now realise that I fully expected to miss my flight from the moment I was told that the train had been cancelled. I don’t know why. There should have been ample time to get to the airport. Taxis are everywhere in London and must travel to the feeder airports every day. Yet I had this nagging feeling in my gut that today was not going to be a day when things were to go in my favour. To cut a long story short, I missed the usual baggage check-in by a few minutes. I was directed to Security (the area where they X-ray your cabin luggage) with my bag for the hold. I assumed, wrongly, that they would take my hold-baggage from me – as they do at the standard check-in -and that I would go through the usual process with the rest of the passengers. It was here that I was informed that my hold-baggage would be treated the same as what people from the US call ‘carry-on’ baggage which meant that I would have any fluids, lotions, sharp objects etc, taken from me and was given a few minutes to remove all such items from my bag. I’m still not sure why they insisted on this as one would think that a bag for the hold is a bag for the hold and that all are treated equally (unless all hold luggage gets X-rayed?). Anyway, I had misunderstood the order to rid the bag of absolutely everything that had seemingly ever been in contact with water! Subsequently, my hold bag failed the X-ray test and was put aside for searching. I now had ten minutes to undergo a bag search and make it to the departure gate. I knew it was never going to be completed in time and protested that I would now miss my flight. Increasing stress levels and a breakdown in communication was causing anxiety neurons to fire all over my brain to the point where for a second, I considered leaving all luggage items and their now spilled contents where they were – displayed for the world to see and make a run for the departure gate. Had I done this, I would have undoubtedly been arrested. As the search concluded the security manager approached me to tell me that my gate had closed and that I had now indeed missed my flight. The expected (but unexpected) wave of anger almost got the better of me. I wanted to retaliate, to bang my fists on the desk, to shout at someone, anyone! My first thoughts were about calling home to tell my wife and little boy that I wouldn’t be home. I had spoken to my son via Skype only hours before and I knew that by now they would be getting ready to leave the house and drive to the arrival airport to pick me up. I had bought my son a gift and he was really excited about getting it. Now I had to make the call to tell him I couldn’t come home and that would make him sad. Waves of anger lapping around in my head. Feeling angry, looking angry, being angry. I should have been on that flight. If the taxi had got there just a few minutes earlier or the security staff had just an ounce of sympathy to my plight then I knew I would have made it. Right about now I should be strapped in my aeroplane seat watching the pre-flight safety brief. And then I thought about why I wasn’t.
Some of you will have probably considered this already but it wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind at the time. Someone had died earlier that day. Hit by a train. As I sat outside the airport with a large coffee I began to try to imagine what on earth they had been thinking about at the time. I had assumed it was a suicide, later I found out that it had been an accident. A tragic accident that ended the life of a schoolgirl and would shatter the lives of many, many others. Anger was replaced by sadness, more so when the details were later released.
The main point of this post is in the very first line above which is repeated below:
“I missed a flight, due to a series of events over which I had very little or no control.”
I had no control of the cause yet I reacted to the effect. Struggling to maintain emotional behaviour can at times be very difficult. How very quickly perceptions and interpretations of your environment trick your mind into thinking that events and people are conspiring against you. There is mileage in the well-known saying that ‘it is what it is’. Living in France I guess I should know better as I have yet to see an irate French national during my time here. They appear to laugh in the face of stress and accept situations for what they are. Of course, this attitude is not always possible so we must consider what level (if any) of influence over events we really have at the time we’re exposed to them. To be emotionally competent and see the bigger picture at all times is a skill, but most skills can be developed and refined.
The fact is, I was inconvenienced whereas only an hour or so earlier someone’s life had ended and the aftermath of that would throw family and friends of the deceased into a hell pit.
Don’t sweat over what you can’t control. Keep calm and carry on
Wishing you success in all that you do,
Dedicated to Katie Littlewood (may she rest in peace) aged 15