Years ago I had a client who owned a small airport. They offered a flight school, firefighting services, plane storage and avionics repairs, and a flight shop. When I was interviewing the general manager, who was also an accomplished pilot, I asked him if he’d ever had an emergency while on a solo flight. “Sure,” he told me. When I asked him what happened, he responded that the single engine just cut out when he was at about ten thousand feet. He was all alone, and the plane started to go down. I’m not a big fan of flying, so the story was especially captivating, as it played out my worst fears. I asked, “So what did you do?”
“Well,” he responded, “I reached into my shirt pocket and took out the pack of Juicy Fruit gum I always keep there.” He looked at me.
“And?” I asked, on the edge of my seat.
“And then I took out a stick of gum, removed the foil wrapping, and put the piece into my mouth.”
“But what about the plane?”
“Oh, it was going down at this point,” he assured me. “I chewed my gum for a few seconds, thought about my options, chose the best course of action, and followed it.”
“That makes sense, but why in the world did you need a piece of gum right then?” I asked.
“Well, taking that gum out, unwrapping it, and chewing it for a moment gave me a chance to gather my thoughts and make sure I was not just panicking, but choosing the best option. What I lost in time then more than made up for it when I knew I was making the right decision on how to best correct the situation safely.”
I was stunned. Who thinks to casually unwrap some gum to chew when their plane is going down? But it did make sense. Those extra few “wasted” minutes were vital to his safety, as it kept him from just doing anything (and probably the wrong thing) when the crisis hit. He had created space to do nothing in the midst of a situation that demanded he do something and was better off for it.
One of the hardest things to do is nothing. Try it. Actually, if you are trying to do nothing, then you aren’t really doing nothing—you are trying. In our increasingly busy lives, we never schedule the time to do nothing. If we schedule downtime it usually is taken up by an activity—reading, watching TV, or sleeping. My dogs spend the better part of their days dozing and lazing around. Of course this isn’t possible for most of us, but giving yourself even ten (ideally fifteen to thirty) minutes a day to just be can be very beneficial. It serves as a time to get perspective and get energy.
I try to meditate every day. Usually I fail, and I end up spending my extra time in some frivolous activity like surfing the net. The times that I do get to meditate are wonderful. Recently I began to take on a few more clients. This happened just as my last classes at Boston University were heading into finals and my wife started a new job. Things got hectic really quickly. When I finally found a chance to simply sit and focus on my breathing, I could actually feel the clutter in my mind start to settle. It was like a Tetris game where all the pieces are poorly placed and new ones keep dropping quickly from above. When my “screen” (my mind) was almost filled to the top, things finally started to fit together. With each minute I sat quietly another piece fell perfectly into place, reducing the chaos and creating space in my mind for new information and peaceful reflection.
Not long ago a friend of mine introduced me to a small start-up company she had heard of. It’s a brilliant idea. The company sells T-shirts and asks the purchaser to commit to ten minutes of helping others each day the shirt is worn. Each morning that the shirt comes out of the drawer in the morning, the wearer makes a mental promise to find ten minutes in the day for the benefit of others. The idea (and the business) is based on the fact that the idea will spread with others buying a shirt and making the same conscious choice to help. Knowing how beneficial it is for me to take a few minutes of each day to meditate, I thought of co-opting the idea for a company called Take 30. The wearer of this T-shirt would commit to spending half an hour of his day doing nothing. It could be meditating, lying on the couch staring up at the ceiling in silence, or sitting in the car at the beach with the radio off looking out at the surf. The rule would be that during those thirty minutes, you could not sleep, watch anything that ran on electricity, or interact with any other person (or pet). You could not actively pursue any goal other than just being.
There is so much we don’t know about ourselves, and we look everywhere outside for it. We soak up information, get advanced degrees, pursue our careers, buy things, and build relationships. Yet, we don’t look inside. Aside from being a useful way to step out of the fray in order to better handle it when you step back in, the simple exercise of doing nothing is a first step to getting familiar with yourself.
It’s difficult enough to lead others effectively. If you don’t have a decent knowledge of yourself, it’s almost impossible. I had a friend a few years back who had all the characteristics of attention deficit disorder. (I don’t know whether or not she had been diagnosed.) Sweet as she was, she would run around all day frantically putting out fires (real and imagined) and following her active and worried mind. I asked her once what she would do if she was forced to sit down quietly with herself in a room with no distractions. She told me she would probably explode. Maybe she would have needed more than a T-shirt.