When the chips are down, be your best self
We had the chance to meet a British couple at a waffle making class, while we were traveling through Amsterdam. They had been dating for three months, and this was their first trip together. Everyone in attendance instinctively agreed that traveling is a great way for the couple to get to know each other. My question is... why? Why is traveling with people such an effective way to deepen bonds?
To me, having been traveling with my family for six straight months now, one answer stands out. Since travel requires us to step out of our comfort zones, such a requirement reveals glimpses of our core selves.
We know the familiar feeling of operating within enjoyable routines. If we’re taking a short and lovely drive for example, we relax. Or in the home of a loved one, we feel free to cut loose a little. But when travel confronts us with a series of novel demands having high stakes of money or safety, we must remain in a perpetual problem-solving state of mind. Should we succeed, we handle those problems with grace and humor. Failure, on the other hand, basically means we become overwhelmed, and we are unable to deal with that state.
Notice that my definition of success is not just solving all problems at hand. My definition of success is rooted in how we handle the problems. And my definition of failure is not merely escaping overwhelm, rather, it’s that failure is the inability to deal with overwhelm.
Thus success and failure do not apply to winning and losing on tasks. They apply to winning and losing on our approach to life. Tasks come and go, and surely, they are a part of life. How we deal with tasks is life itself.
This realization is the bedrock of teaching, learning, and parenting. No matter what subject we aim to teach or learn, our approach is paramount. My personal challenge these days (that I now throw to you) is this: when the chips are down and the stakes are raised, at the moment when we could so easily slip into irreversible overwhelm, we get an elevated opportunity to step into the best version of ourselves.
I don’t always hit my mark, but when I do, I rejoice. One early morning in Australia’s Gold Coast airport, my five-year-old daughter and I were attempting to rent a luggage cart off of one of those coin-operated racks. The price was $4 AUD, equating to $2.70 in US dollars. (To me, that’s kind of pricey just for a cart, but we really needed one.) After a mini math lesson on what two $2 coins adds to, we inserted the money. However, the rack relocked before we could pull the cart out.
Cart machine: 1, Team Ahdoot: 0.
Immediately, images from my childhood of arcade games unapologetically “eating” my quarters raced through my memory. (Some of you may know that when a machine “eats” your money, it means that you insert your money, but nothing happens with the machine. Then for a period of one to five seconds, tradition mandates that you stand there and blankly stare at the machine like a doofus.)
My first impulse was to resolve this issue the same way I did back then. The classic go-to play is to find someone with authority and explain the situation, so that a resolution could be found. But when I looked down the long and desolate terminal, I knew that we were on our own.
Cart machine: 2, Team Ahdoot: 0.
Then, thankfully, a certain feeling bubbled up from within me. I instantly made an internal pact that I would be the best version of myself, in the eyes of my ever-watching daughter. What would my “hero self” do in this situation?
He would act as if $2.70 is replaceable and not that big a deal.
He would maintain perspective, by remembering all the money saved on the discount airport shuttle we reserved. Compared to renting a car, it saved us both money as well as the stress of driving on the left-hand side of the roads, in the rain, for more than an hour after a flight.
My hero self would also be the recipient of blessings, whereby in reaching into his pocket, wouldn’t you know that two more $2 coins emerged?
For our next attempt, she and I readied ourselves to pull that cart out as fast as we could. We dropped the coins in, heard the unlocking click-clack on the style, yanked the cart out in excited laughter, and then we heard the lock quickly click-clack back. In our minds, we were champions. We had the cart, and we were laughing.
Cart machine: 2, Team Ahdoot: ∞, aka infinity.
How many times in our lives do charged moments offer us a chance either to step into our best selves, or to unravel? The next layer within this challenge is to successfully deal with overwhelm itself when it inevitably arises. No matter who you are, sometimes getting overwhelmed is an inescapable facet of life. For me, my solution for overwhelm entails first admitting that I’m overwhelmed, taking some time and space to regroup, then patiently looking for my moment to get back in the game.
To be a good teacher or good parent means that we first do our best to lead good lives. We’re not required to have everything figured out beforehand. Naturally, we learn as we go. Yet our job is to identify that best self who exists within us all, and anoint that version of ourselves to take their place on the throne of our lives. Don’t let the inner gremlin take the throne, especially during higher stakes.
I share the luggage cart story with you because it’s a shining recent example in my life when my best self emerged when it counted. At the same time, I would also need many “gigs” of file space to type out the many times when I faltered in this regard, by letting overwhelm get the best of me. Waging this pervasive inner battle, with its ups and downs, fortunately has a wonderful silver lining though.
If I, a 40-something adult who works tooth and nail to address my life’s processes can still get overwhelmed, then you better believe that I have endless patience and sympathy for kids a third my age undergoing the same experiences. Once we get enough practice at being our own heroes, we’ll be ready to be theirs. Especially when the chips are down.
oh, and ps, the waffles were SO GOOD. I hadn't even heard of them prior. For more shots of that day, including how our Stroopwafels looked upon completion, here's that post on Instagram. I highly recommend that you try one.