Those Greta Garbo moments

Travelling back from Belfast recently, I found myself stuck in the airport waiting for a delayed plane.  I was already tired and getting increasingly stressed and irritable. Around me, other passengers were running up and down trying to work out which gate they needed, calming down bored children or just making the most of the facilities.  All very loudly.

Getting to the limits of coping, I felt like screaming Greta Garbo’s famous line from Grand Hotel – “I want to be alone; I just want to be alone!”

Instead of screaming, I went in search of the airport’s quiet room. Encouragingly, their website recognises that although it’s “a vibrant airport that never sleeps”, passengers also need a place of solitude and so they provide “an oasis of calm to enable quiet contemplation and prayer”.   Unfortunately, it’s in the arrivals hall!

I eventually found refuge in a corridor linking two parts of the departure lounge, where my peace was only occasionally interrupted by a stampede of passengers who had just been called to their gate.  After about 20 minutes or so, I was able to return to the bustle of a cafe and even managed to enjoy the vibrance of this busy international airport.

I once coached a junior doctor who found that when things got on top of him, he also needed to escape.  His coping mechanism was to disappear for 10 minutes to grab a cup of coffee.  He could then return to work with a completely clear mind, ready to make the critical decisions his job required.

He was struggling however with guilt, feeling he was abandoning his colleagues, leaving them to cope with the challenges of a busy shift.  He was also worried that he’d get a reputation for bailing out when things got tough; being seen quietly drinking coffee while the team is under pressure doesn’t look good.

Hiding is of course another option.  Susan Cain’s brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking for example includes an anecdote about a highly accomplished speaker, who in order to find time and space to compose himself, hides in toilet cubicles rather than join his hosts for lunch.  Even by my standards that feels extreme, but the important thing is that he recognises what he needs to do to perform at his very best. 

I’m fortunate enough to have a friend who understands what I need as an introvert.  Paul once saw me walking to the station and stopped to offer me a lift.  When we got there, he asked whether I wanted to sit with him on the journey or to sit alone, and wasn’t offended when I said I’d prefer to be alone.

A team that works well together should be able to have a similar level of understanding and honesty.  The junior doctor should be able to take a short coffee break, safe in the knowledge that he’ll be judged on his overall performance and contribution to the team, not on his need to disappear occasionally.

We’re often told that we should just “keep calm and carry on”, as if pure willpower can conquer everything.  Struggling to keep calm while screaming internally however is highly unlikely to lead to competence, let alone excellence.