If you travel at all for business, you know that it’s much different than holiday travel. The little things don’t seem to bother us so much when we’re heading off to spend a week lounging in the sun sipping umbrella drinks. Work travel is different. While I love what I do, there are times when it can be exhausting, and little irritations pop up everywhere. Rude people, long lines, hurry up and wait. There aren’t necessarily more irritations when we travel for business, but we notice them more.
After criss-crossing the country on a recent trip from SW Florida to Southern California to Boston, four days in and I was halfway there. By the time I arrived at the hotel, all I wanted was to change into my comfy clothes, get room service, and regroup for the next speaking engagement. Room service, I was told, was not available that evening, but the “marketplace” (a.k.a. snack bar) was open for another 25 minutes. By this time, I was hangry so the marketplace it was.
The young 20-something man behind the counter had already greeted me with a wide smile and neon green earbuds which I assume were providing the background for the song he was singing aloud. As I approached, he removed his earbuds and continued singing… serenading me. It was impossible not to smile back. In that moment, my irritation started to dissipate. I ordered a chicken panini. He told me it would be a few minutes because he had already started breaking down the kitchen.
“I promise it will be worth the wait! I make a 5-star chicken panini!” he said as he popped his earbuds back in and danced his way into the kitchen.
Here was a kid who was probably making a few bucks above minimum wage happy to be a work and taking pride in making a sandwich. Still singing, he bounced back from the kitchen. “Sorry for the wait,” he said. “I hope this sandwich changes your day for the better.” Mission accomplished. This kid was a changemaker.
On day six, I got up at 3:30 AM to make the last leg of the travel triangle back to SW Florida. I was whipped and all I wanted to be was home. I got to the airport and navigated to the gate. Among the sea of early morning travelers, the gate agent stood out. She looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there. Her expression and overall demeanor was a mix of contempt, anger and gloom. In fact, she looked like she hated not just her job, but her life.
There was clearly an issue with the flight as boarding time came and went leaving us all standing there waiting for an indication as to what the problem was. As people approached with questions, she abrasively answered without making contact or even looking up from the computer. We were intruders clearly interrupting her “work.” Beyond being a terrible representative for that particular airline, the attitude that she got in return only thickened the negativity cloak she wore so smugly.
After waiting for nearly 2 hours, I saw her sigh, roll her eyes, and frown a lot, but I never saw her smile once. She had a choice that day: she could choose to change people negatively as just another irritation on a long work trip, or she could choose to change people positively with something as simple as a smile or a kind word.
We are all change makers. Because we are wired to connect with others and emotions are contagious through mirror neurons, we change others with a powerful subconscious force. What happens within us happens between us. We don't just co-exist; we connect with each other from the inside out.
"Be the change you wish to see in the world." Those words are often attributed to Ghandi, but it turns out the actual quote has been truncated over the years. In 1913, he wrote this:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
That kid at the marketplace clearly has discovered the “divine mystery supreme.” He may not know the neuroscience of a smile or laughter. He may not know the concept of emotional contagion – that because we are wired to connect with others, mirror neurons pick up the emotions of others and generate the same neurochemical response as if we were actually experiencing those emotions.
But, I bet he knows that, today, he has the power to create a positive experience for another person in his little corner of the world. With a little more knowledge, experience, and determination, who knows what he’ll accomplish tomorrow? I’d put him in front of my customers over the gate agent every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
And, for the record, that was the best damn chicken panini ever!