What Do You Want to Say You Did?

Dealing with unforeseen issues that arise is something that we all have to do from time to time. During my time at The Green Tortoise I got regular practice in dealing with crisis situations, as well as a lesson that taught me the most effective way to approach them.

Trouble at the Beach

Tortoise drivers were also expected to be mechanics and to keep their busses running. I had started to build up my collection of tools, but I was still learning about how to approach the mechanical issues that occasionally occurred. One weekend I did a trip to Los Angeles with 'Billy', one of the more experienced drivers. Just before 7 in the evening we were due to pull out of the parking lot on Venice Beach and go and pick up our first LA passengers before leaving town for the overnight drive back to San Francisco. I was started toward the exit and then gently applied the brakes. Instead of smoothly coming to a stop however, the bus gave out a load chattering groan and Billy and I looked at each other in disbelief — we hadn't even left the parking lot and we had a mechanical problem!

I backed up into our parking space and then Billy shimmied under the front end of the bus and started poking around. I started pacing. It was almost 7 and we were going to be late! Who knows how bad this could be. We could have a major problem here.

I stuck my head under the bus. "How's it going?" I ask impatiently.

He didn't say anything for a minute and then finally asked, "How about getting out my toolbox?".

I pull out his toolbox while he keeps dinking around under the bus. He seems to be in no apparent hurry and I am getting more frustrated by the minute. I hate to be late — it throws the whole trip off. I want to get moving, but he's just puttering along as if we have all the time in the world. He comes back up from under the bus and digs around in his tool box for something else before going back under. He asks me to sit in the driver's seat and apply the brakes a couple of times, which I do.

It's now about 7:05 and we're definitely late. I'm getting more frustrated by the minute; with the bus, with the time, and with how slow Billy is moving. He comes back up for one more tool and he's about to climb under the bus again. As I remind him of the time once more he stops and turns to me, a slight smile on his face.

"Look, tomorrow or the next day, or sometime next week you're going to be sitting in the kitchen at the Tortoise office and this little problem is going to come up. What do you want to say that you did about it, FREAKED OUT..." at which point he flails his arms and legs around to make his point, "...or got out your tools, went under the bus and fixed the problem?"

I didn't have an answer of course, so after letting his words hang in the air for a second he turned, crawled under the bus and had me apply and release the brakes a couple of more times while he adjusted both the front brake shoes. This fixed the noise and we were on our way in about 5 more minutes.

The situation did come up when we were back at the office. Billy mentioned to the head mechanic that the front brakes had developed some chatter and that we'd adjusted them in Venice. The mechanic asked another question or two, and Billy had all the right answers and that was it. Billy then gave me a little nod as if to say "See?".

Doing What I Wish That I'd Done

A few weeks later I was out on another trip and I had a minor issue with the bus. I could feel myself starting to tense up about the problem, the schedule, and all that we had to do when a little tape played in my head of Billy asking me what I wanted to say that I did when I was at the kitchen table. I found that a sudden calm came over me. Now I was 'thinking back' on the situation from a calm place somewhere in the future, rather than from between the rock and the hard place that I was in at the time. This allowed me to think about what it was that I would like to say that I did. Without the stress of the situation clogging my brain, the choice was obvious and I set about a logical troubleshooting process that fixed the problem. Back in the office I described what happened and was able to say that I did the right thing, which was very satisfying.

What continues to fascinate me is that there seems to be a physiological response that happens when I project into the future. Trying to make a clear-headed decision from a place of stress is very difficult, and when I think forward to myself recounting the present at a later date I feel a physical change in my body and a tangible 'clearing' within my mind.

Sense of Urgency

One of the standard qualification bullets on job descriptions is 'sense of urgency', which means that part of the job is knowing what's important and when to drop everything and focus on that one thing. This is what both myself and my co-driver were doing in the example above — only one of us was effective and one of us wasn't. Sense of urgency is critical when working in a fluid environment where priorities can change by the minute (like driving a tour bus or working on the bleeding edge of technology), but even more important is the ability to work under pressure and to apply calm, clear, and logical leadership.

Without the ability to stay calm and focused you risk bringing urgency — and nothing else.