Pay Attention…Or Pay Dearly

I travel quite a lot, and as anyone who does that will tell you, it’s much less exciting than it might sound. Some of the most stressful experiences human beings have now take place in airports and on airplanes (and I’m not talking about phobics, here!). Thanks to 9/11, boarding a plane is infinitely more challenging than it used to be. Though once you board, there are several things we all still have to contend with. For instance, you no doubt realize that a multi-million dollar piece of aeronautic engineering can be undone by anything at all that has a power switch on it. As a flight attendant (who no doubt finds this as annoying as the rest of us – maybe worse because they have to enforce this rule) recently announced over a crackly PA, “That includes Kindles, iPads, iPods, cell phones, and anything with an on-off switch, all must be turned to the ‘off’ position.”

I completely respect that this must not be easy for the airline industry or its employees. Most, even those who would argue vehemently about navigational controls being interfered with by small electronics, likely feel a bit silly enforcing the power switch rule.

All that is a preface to make clear that while I may or may not like the rule, I understand it, and realize that it’s inconvenient for everyone. Some Amish sadist, I suspect, was originally behind it, trying to persuade the rest of use to eschew our technology like he did. Then again, how many Amish do you know flying into major airports weekly? I actually apologize to any Amish out there, as they never did anything to me…

What then however if you are predisposed to perceive an object a certain way, behave accordingly, even if it’s something entirely different? That’s where the old advice our teachers gave us comes back to haunt us – “Pay attention!”

Knowing that we were minutes from being asked to turn off our laptops and e-readers, I had stowed mine, and had a really cool and amazingly preserved artifact in my lap, a hardback copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. That’s right, physical ink print on actual paper. Young children stared and pointed, imploring their parents to explain this weird, foreign device. An older passenger glanced wistfully at my book, as though about to say, “I haven’t seen one of those since…” and then really scanned their memories to try and recall when indeed they had last seen such an analog device.

But the really strange part came when the flight attendant glanced quickly at my book and chastised me with her frown and tone: “Sir, I’m going to need you to turn the power butwiton to the ‘off’ position for takeoff.” For a moment genuinely confused (as I knew what it was, and realized that there is no way to in fact “turn it off”, I had to scan for meaning in her words, to discern what she meant – a great reminder of how we do that every day, though most often unconsciously. A moment later, I grasped it, but before I could explain, I turned it sideways to show her where the power switch should be and how I could not find it (with my ostensibly limited tech-savvy), and answered in a tone intended to sound sincere and confused, though it likely came across as much more smart-ass than she deserved, “I’m new to these things…I’m sorry I don’t know how to turn off the power”.

She flashed first confusion, as she herself tried to make sense of the situation, then embarrassment and irritation as she got the joke.

I don’t advocate mocking people this way, and in the interest of karma, I should admit that I got my drink later than most people in my section after that. To me, it was worth it to mark the lesson out clearly – if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, and just assume that everything around us is as expected, we will miss important details. Sometimes it’s a matter of a little embarrassment as life, the frequent joker, delivers its punchline, but sometimes it’s much more serious. Sometimes we operate on autopilot so to speak, and fail to notice important details that don’t match our expectations. We spoke about Deletion in an earlier post, and this is a great example – it doesn’t fit our expectations so we just ignore it or delete it from our sensory perception. How many relationships do you imagine have been lost due to such negligence? How many great career opportunities have been missed, how many opportunities to make our loved ones feel, well, loved?

There is a price for every misstep, even though we are learning from every outcome. If we take our partners or our friends for granted, and just assume that’s how it should be, that somehow they should just put up with it, one day they may have had enough, and the price we pay may be our relationships, or our business, potentially profound losses for most of us. If I\we take our customers for granted, just assume that things will run on autopilot without our paying attention to new information, new details, we may lose them. And a business with no customers is…no longer in business.

Details matter. Life is not as fulfilling or successful on autopilot. When we actively participate in our world, we can find new levels of fulfillment previously unimagined. When we just assume that the next day will be like this one, as it was like the day before it, we aren’t really living, but rather existing.

Plus, we will notice the different between a book and a laptop computer, or the difference between a sidewalk and a busy street, other potentially useful skills!

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