Last week I got stuck at the airport in Burlington, Vermont after an eventful weekend at my friend’s wedding.
I dragged my suitcase up to the United Airlines check-in and, with a tired smile, handed them my ID. My face quickly dropped when they told me my ticket had been canceled; they sold it to someone else. After several less-than-pleasant conversations with their staff members, we found the source of the problem - it was my own fault - and I sat down against the far wall with my luggage, eyes closed and defeated.
I returned to the airport the following morning at 5:00am and yet, despite being eager to finally get home — I stayed in my seat while everyone boarded the plane, and walked to the terminal just before the plane took off. And that’s when I wrote this article.
Whenever I fly alone I am the last person to board the plane. Having an extra day in Burlington enabled me to figure out why - and I think it’s worth sharing.
Everyone has the same goals, almost identically. Everyone wants to be happy, healthy, successful, loved, and fulfilled. But, as Mark Manson and others have shown: everyone seems to have different ways of how to get there. They form these strategies from what they read, who they talk to, what they think they know, and their experiences. They develop a moral compass and conception of themselves and of society based on past subjective conceptions projected by people — maybe people they trust - who in turn based their own on other peoples’ subjective conceptions.
Everyone wants the same things, but everyone has their own idea of how to get those things. Some people pursue grad school because they believe it will give them job security, money, satisfaction, and status. Others drop out of school at 17 to pursue a startup because they think the key to success and happiness arises from self-created entrepreneurial grit. And yet others spend a lifetime meditating in the woods, believing that all of this is really transient.
The bottom line is this: We all want to accomplish the same goals, but none of us actually know how to. And when I say “know” I mean the literal version of “know.”
How do we accomplish our goals, in a world where there is no single source of discernible truth for what one should do to most effectively achieve one’s goals?
The answer, the one that most people choose, the one that can be observed in much of our society, including the airport, is to follow the crowd.
Because there is no explicit, universally accepted strategy for achieving lasting happiness, people follow other people. It’s the safe way. If every healthy person I know eats vegetables, then I should eat vegetables too if I want to be healthy, right? It doesn’t seem crazy.
While following the crowd can keep you within certain safe boundaries and satisfy some of your needs, I believe there is a more effective, empirical way to approach actions and decisions.
I believe this process is iterative, failure-driven, and applicable to almost any scenario:
- Understand the situation in the present moment
- Understand the situation as a potential future moment
- Determined what you can possibly gain or lose from the situation in the present and future moment
- Contemplate strategies, and analyze the relationship between your long term and short-term gain/loss based on the probable outcomes of these strategies
- Execute strategies
- Find flaws, understand errors, correct errors, repeat
If we remove ourselves from our preconceived ideas of what we should do and where we should be based on entirely subjective norms and instead replace them with this process, I think we can be more effective at achieving our goals. In short: we should question things, seek answers, uncover failure, and embark on iterative progress.
Now, back to the airport.
Let’s examine the period of time before and during the boarding of a plane for most people, and then for me:
Boarding time (30 minutes before flight)
- 30-minutes standing idly in line
- 15 minutes in airbridge walkway, standing in line
-15 minutes sitting in plane before takeoff
Net time consumed in idle travel: 60 minutes
Boarding time (30 minutes before flight)
- 0-minutes standing idly in line
- 0 minutes in airbridge walkway
- 6 minutes sitting in plane before takeoff
Net time consumed in idle travel: 6 minutes
I reduce my idle time by 10x and thus save 54 minutes every time I fly. During this time I read, talk to friends and family, and write overly-philosophical articles. While people are standing in line, I am sitting 10 feet away, doing things.
This might seem like a very basic, straight-forward example... but then why do so few people do it? The reason, I believe, is because people are focused on following the crowd. Everyone is standing in line, they all want to get on the same plane, so shouldn’t you stand with them?
By doing a quick analysis of the pros/cons of getting in line “on- time” versus staying in my seat, I discovered quickly the productivity and time I could save.
We all want to board the same plane. But if you board the plane the way everyone else does, your results will be the same as everyone else’s.
Next time you board a plane, study for an exam, rent a condo, apply for a job, or deliver a presentation, don’t just follow the crowd; determine goals, strategies, probable outcomes, and net results — and pray that there’s still luggage space.