Ego at 24,000 feet
It was a late Wednesday afternoon, and I was flying from Boston back to Baltimore after a long day visiting the headquarters of my employer for an all-day workshop designed to work through a complicated set of requirements for a new software project. I had flown in early that same day and after several hours of brainstorming and project scoping, I was mentally and physically running on empty. Knowing the flight wouldn’t be a long one, I tried keeping a positive attitude hoping that I’d be home in time for dinner with my family that evening.
Upon arriving at the gate, I noticed that the boarding pass I had pulled up on my mobile device wasn’t showing the seat assignment. “Huh”, I thought as I reloaded the app, hoping it was just a UI glitch. Alas, the issue remained and that meant I was going to have to talk to somebody at the gate to resolve the problem before I could board the plane. “Ugh, more talking” I whispered internally as I worked my way through security check — which is its own treat.
I was now at the gate, ready to inquire. Maybe it was the unexcited look on the attendant’s face or perhaps what she told me next but I was annoyed. “You’ll have to wait until called so you can get a seat assigned” she muttered. I paused, internalized the unexpected statement she had just made, knowing I wouldn’t really be able to do anything about it and uttered in a false voice of excitement, “okay then.”
I sat down across from her, making sure she wouldn’t miss me when she looked up so she could see how disappointed I was at the news. Silly, really, but we aren’t always rational thinkers, are we?
I decided that rather than brew over the injustice that had just befallen me, I would instead do it over the string of awful news that have been coming from around the world and from our White House. It worked. In the 20 minutes it took for boarding to begin and end, I was now irked that I would not only be last to board but that there was a chance we’d be going to war with another country over some dumb tweets.
I waited patiently on the call for the unassigned (apparently just me), to provide relief for this mild anxiety and once it came, I approached the bench, ready for my sentence. With a cold glance exchanged — I wasn’t about to disarm hers with a smile — she handed me a slip. 25D. Wait what? “Isn’t that at the back of the plane?” I asked myself as I stood at the end of the queue that was still trying to snake its way into the plane.
Upon stepping into the aircraft, I proceeded to walk down the aisle, passing row after row of seats, some empty and some with eyes that seemed to laugh at me as I walked by. I’m not usually self-conscious but at this point I was the only passenger still standing, still boarding, still visible to 20+ rows of people and I felt it. What form of torture was this?
I finally reached my row and sat down. “Couldn’t she have assigned me one of those half-dozen empty seats up there?” I asked myself, still trying to regain composure internally. She should have shown me better customer service than that. “She must have assigned me this shitty seat deliberately”, I mumbled softly to myself. I thought about complaining publicly on Twitter @jetblue. I started reaching for my phone and then it hit me.
I had allowed ego to take over. It felt disrespected. It felt entitled to a better treatment, especially after such a long day, and it didn’t get its due.
That sense of entitlement, that’s ego.
Let’s consider what happened or rather what didn’t happen:
- I wasn’t told I couldn’t board.
- I wasn’t delayed in any way so there was still a strong chance I’d make it home for dinner with my family.
- The gate attendant wasn’t rude or mean, a little cold perhaps — she might have had just as long of a day as me — but still, she acted professionally.
So then, what was taken from me that was so precious that I spent the better part of an hour of my life festering over?
My ego allowed me to claim ahead of time a “better seat” on that plane. It tried to control an outcome over which it had none. When it got disappointed, it did what it does best: get annoyed, pout, get moody, blame and generally try to screw up the rest of my day.
What’s the lesson here? Well, if it’s not clear yet, it’s simply that there will be dozens of opportunities throughout any given 24-hour period for your ego to strike at your well-being. Often, you won’t even notice that you have succumbed to its influence. When you feel that sense of entitlement and resentment, chances are, ego got to you.
There’s hope. The very same emotions that ego brings about are also the signal you need to take action. The hard part comes in training your mind to spot those instances and to shorten your reaction time to them — to catch yourself before they get worse. With time, ego may loosen its grip over you or you may gain more control over it.
What does “training your mind” entail? One technique I use is to document the occurrence. This whole post is an exercise in documenting the situation that led to my ego episode and how I proceeded to handle it by writing this while in that very seat I was complaining about.
I will end with a pertinent quote that I’ve come to appreciate:
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”
— Marcus Aurelius