2. The most important lessons

Friday, October 16, 2015

I’m in a hotel room in Burlington, Ontario, looking out of my fourth story window at the beautiful yellow-leaved ash trees. It’s early. Not yet noon, but I wouldn’t consider it the morning anymore. Meg left me here while she went to work, so I decided to wake up slow, take a shower, lay on the couch and reflect. I was visiting Meg because I hadn’t seen her in over a month. I flew in late and forgot my headphones and music. Instead I planned on keeping myself occupied with a book and my sketchbook.

I was feeling distraught because earlier that day I was given my annual review. Usually I don’t care about these types of things, but this time was different. My review this year was not as good as years previous. I was surprised to discover that I had certain areas that I thought were my strengths being represented as “below expectation”. I instantly felt betrayed and noticed that I was becoming very defensive. It made me question my role as an employee and team member. I brought the shitty feeling with me out of the office and to the airport that night where I was going to catch my flight to Toronto.

Once I had passed security and settled into my departure gate, I cracked open my book. The book I decided to bring was Ryan Holiday’s, The Obstacle is the Way. Coincidentally, the book is about how to turn seemingly negative situations or obstacles into a purposeful or positive situation. The timing could not have been better to coincide with my shitty day at work. So I waited in the terminal, still stewing about my review, reading my new book and occasionally sketching people who intermittently caught my gaze.

I was only able to read a handful of pages before I was called to board the flight. After some penguin shuffling and nimble maneuvering through the aisle, I sat down in my seat next to a grandmotherly woman. We both smiled and nodded as i fidgeted with my seat belt. I may have even said hello. I don’t quite remember. As I settled into the seat, I opened up my book and sketchbook and began reading and making notes, waiting for the plane to take off into the night.

“Did you draw those? They’re beautiful.”

I turn to the grandmotherly woman and said, “yeah—thanks, I drew these people in the terminal before I got on the plane.” They weren’t my greatest sketches, but I’m always amused when people find the slightest interest in someone’s ability to draw. I quickly brushed through the pages as I told her that I was an artist of sorts. Her eyes opened like I just showed her a magic trick. There was something different about her reaction than the usual type of person who interrupts my sketching. Most observers say things like, “did you really draw that?”

“Um…yeah, I’m drawing it right now. You’re watching me do it!” I don’t say that out loud of course, but I’ve rehearsed that script in my head many-a-times.

She was different though.

She was looking at my pages like a child looks into an aquarium full of colourful fish. She was amused at how small my writing was, to which I responded, “it let’s me get more of my thoughts of the page.”

She follows up by asking me, “you write when you read?”

“Yeah, I find that it helps me absorb information, and I can also save these passages for a later date. It’s a lot like studying.”

She asked about my book and I immediately tell her about how timely it was for me to be reading it because of the bad day I was having. As I was talking to her I realized that even though I had a really bad day, there is a silver-lining to it. Just like the book’s title—the obstacle is the way.

Our flight takes off.

I’m not one of those people who talk to other people of flights, but for some reason I felt up to talking to this woman. I opened up to her about my review and how this book is helping me cope with my situation. She was sympathetic and opened up to me about how her husband of 40+ years had died two months ago. It was the most difficult thing she’s ever dealt with. And boarding this plane was a huge event for her because she’s never traveled without him.

She told me how important it is to find the good in seemingly bad things. My situation was suddenly so petty compared to hers. However, we connected through our need to keep living and moving forward without grief, regret or negativity in our hearts.

I closed my books and talked to this woman for the entire two hour flight.

I was shocked how easy it was to confide in this stranger and have her reciprocate all of her fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities. It was an incredible conversation.

We landed and said our goodbyes. I was going to Burlington to visit Meg and she was staying in Toronto to visit her daughter. I grabbed my bag and went forth into the night and she stayed back and waited for the other passengers to leave the aisle before she made her way off the plane.

I was so grateful to have met her. Her name was Sonya and she was a retired high school math teacher.

My flight with Sonya made me completely rethink my annual review experience. Yes, I was disappointed and angry about the judgement cast on me, but it wasn’t without merit. What kind of person am I to think that I do not have weaknesses beyond my own perception? I’m going to find a way to turn it into a positive and use it as a learning experience, so when I think back on it, I have nothing but gratitude.

A long time ago I heard someone say, “when you’re done working hard, work harder.” It’s always stuck with me. There will always be room for improvement, no matter who you are or what you do. There is always a way to increase your productivity, knowledge, resources, energy, attitude, health, etc. John Wooden once said, “the most important lessons are the ones you learn after you know everything.” 

It sucks, but it’s true.

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