I had just finished facilitating a daylong workshop for a team of leaders at Walmart when I received a voicemail telling me my flight from Bentonville, Ark., that evening had been canceled and I would not be able to get home until sometime the next day.
I had been away much of the week, I was tired and I had several morning meetings the next day that I did not want to miss. I made an instant decision: I am not going to let myself get frustrated or move into victim mode. It’s something I have worked at for many years.
The first technique I used came from a sports psychologist named Jim Loehr, who I was interviewing at the time for a book I was writing, and with whom I later went to work. Mr. Loehr was describing something he had observed in the best tennis players – namely that they were meticulous about renewing themselves in the 20 to 30 seconds between points. The first thing these players did when a point ended was to turn away from the net.
I loved the metaphor: Turn away from the net. Let it go. Don’t dissipate energy on something you can no longer influence. Invest it instead where it has the power to make a difference. I came to call it the Energy Serenity Prayer.
Each of us has a finite reservoir of energy in any given day. Whatever amount of energy we spend obsessing about missteps we have made, decisions that do not go our way or the belief we have been treated unfairly is energy no longer available to add value in the world.
Worse yet, negative emotions feed on themselves and move us into fight or flight – a reactive state in which it is impossible to think clearly. Negative emotions also burn down energy at a furious rate. It is exhausting to be a victim.
My goal was to keep calm and carry on. Except the world was not exactly cooperating. I was able to find a plane that got me halfway home, to Charlotte, N.C. Unfortunately, when we landed, we had to sit for 90 minutes on the runway in a driving thunderstorm. Then my suitcase did not show up and it took an hour to track it down. By the time I got to my hotel, it was 12:30 a.m., and I had to be up in four hours to catch a flight at 6.
I overslept, which I never do. Checking Expedia, I discovered there was not a single seat to New York, coach or first class, for the rest of the day. Only then did I remember we were heading into Memorial Day weekend.
If I was to keep my composure at this point, I needed to find a new gear.
This is where the second technique came in. I have long recognized that one of the best ways to make yourself feel better is to make someone else feel better I also happened to be in the midst of reading a book called “Give and Take” by Adam Grant, which makes a compelling case that people who give without expecting anything in return actually turn out not only to feel better for having done so, but also to be more successful.
Giving, Mr. Grant explains, does not require extraordinary acts of sacrifice. It simply involves a focus on acting in the interests of others. When takers succeed, there is usually someone else who loses. When givers give, it spreads and cascades. In my own case, the book served as a powerful reminder that the “giver” is the person I want to be.
Rather than feeling sorry for myself, I decided to focus on making other people feel better. As I made my way through the airport, I stopped long enough to ask the people I encountered “How are you doing today?” and to be genuinely interested in their answers.
When I got to the gate to stand by for the next flight, I posed the same question to the two women at the counter. They looked at each other and rolled their eyes. “I just want this weekend to be over,” said one. “All I want is some coffee,” said the other.
“I can get you that,” I said. A few minutes later, I returned with two cups of coffee – and their appreciative smiles. I felt better, they felt better, and I suspected a lot of other travelers benefited from their lifted spirits.
As it turned out, I got the last seat on the plane. For a moment, I wondered if I had unconsciously done these women a favor in the hope that they would do me one in return.
I would like to think not. But I also realized, it doesn’t really matter.