Living Life in an Airport

17 Jul

Years ago I was waiting for a flight connection at a huge USA airport. The stopover was going to last several hours, so I spent a long time wondering around, watching aircraft take off and land, browsing round the shops, and just generally watching the world go by. All around me were people waiting, on their own, with their families, with friends and everyone seemed, at least in my imagination, to have a different type of destination. Some people looked like they were travelling on a gap year, others on business, family holidays, everyone though, had one thing in common, their journey had begun, but arrived at a temporary limbo. As the time ticked by, I realised I was enjoying this limbo. My journey had begun, I had left, for a while at least, my current life behind, and the potential of my destination still awaited me. The airport had become a holding bay for anticipation.

The airport meant the potential of the trip was unspoilt by reality. I was on my way, but I had arrived at a place where I could simply imagine what lay ahead, I was quietly enjoying my time in limbo. Limbo can be a nice place to be, it marks the end of something, a moving on, and places you in a pocket where you can imagine and anticipate the future. People can experience this “pocket” after leaving a job, university, moving to another area or country, basically between the end of one episode and the beginning of another; a little like watching a cliff-hanger ending of your favourite TV show and then imagining, and hoping, how good the next episode is going to be. Frequently, this period of anticipation can far exceed what really happens.

The messy nature of life means our expectations do not always get met, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The pleasures of limbo can provide a nice holiday from reality, but problems occur when people, and particularly organisations, stay there too long. When limbo starts to become an MO, it goes from being a reality holiday, to a directionless wander around the wilderness, until becoming completely lost. This is the domain of non-decision making, constant thought without action, and in an organisation, leadership without purpose or vision.

Years, if not lives, can be spent living at an airport. A waiting room approach to deciding, choosing, planning and strategy. The world outside the metaphorical airport does not stay still though, and life can become a hostage to fortune, the future decided by fate. I’ve researched airport type organisations, and airport type people; both can get lucky and be jolted out of limbo and into a rewarding direction, or they can be forced to start again with very little. But possibly the worst fate is years of minor events which simply chip away, never enough to lead to dramatic change, and never enough to make it necessary to feel like leaving the airport. If an organisation is in this state, the people within it will be forever waiting, wandering if any of their work or ideas count for anything.

How would a person or organisation get out of limbo? It’s actually quite simple, you choose a destination and catch a flight. When you arrive at your destination, your expectation may not be met, but you’ll get information you didn’t have before. The information allows you to make better choices in the future, recover from disappointments far quicker, and know how well your plans are working out sooner.

This is the last article in the recent series which has covered the three frames of mind people use in their decision making, sense making and goal setting. Staying at the airport too long is, in some ways, the epitome of an open mind. There is food, drink, anticipation, and all those exotic locations to choose from off the departures board. These articles, in a nutshell, have been about choosing a location, getting to the destination and using the feedback to adapt the situation to the best you can make it; even if that means tearing up your original itinerary.


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