Travel brings out some interesting parts of our personalities. Some of us stress over every detail, while others throw a few things in a bag and figure out the rest as they go. Some of us treat vacation as work in another location—whether we are actually working, or just treating the vacation as if it is work—managing and choreographing the experience. Others of us completely let go and allow things to happen naturally on vacation in a way that we might have trouble allowing at home. But it’s when things go wrong on a trip that we really see some interesting parts of ourselves—parts of ourselves that at first we might not want to see. For example, when we make a wrong turn, or miss the flight, or find out the hotel isn’t what it looked like in the photos—who shows up then? Those are often the moments when we find out how adaptive and resilient we really are—how willing we are to roll with a little adversity. In coaching we call this NATO—Not Attached To the Outcome. I work with clients around NATO all the time, but it’s a concept that I still have to constantly keep in the forefront of my mind, especially when things go “wrong.” When we are attached to our expectations about how something or someone is “supposed” to be, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. More importantly, we keep ourselves stuck. If we are attached, for example, to the idea that everyone should be relaxed and having fun on vacation, we will have a hard time dealing with grumpy moods or an unexpected stomach bug. If, instead, we can be open to experiences that come our way, we are more likely to be able to think our way through problems as they come up, or perhaps not even treat them as problems at all. A wrong turn might lead to a delightful discovery; a missed flight might lead to a great conversation with the person next to us on the flight we do make. We can only be open to those experiences, though, with the “NATO” mindset. Otherwise, we will be distracted, frustrated, or perhaps angry. We might blame our traveling companions for the mess we are in and feel resentful toward them for the duration of the trip. We might spend our vacation on the phone trying to find someone to blame for the problems we’ve experienced. And if you grew up in an environment that was unpredictable or chaotic, you will likely find that you tend toward one extreme or another. We either crave more control or seek to release it in degrees that often match what we experienced growing up—unless we’ve done a heck of a lot of work around NATO. I work with NATO all the time, and it’s still hard for me to release my vision of what a vacation “should” be. That’s probably because I get caught up in my attachment to creating a certain experience for my kids and not just myself (As moms, Christmas and birthdays sometimes fall in the same category. You feel me ;) ).
This week tested my NATO muscles to the max, but provided an experience that will stay with me for a long time. We were supposed to go on vacation, but didn’t. My son was scheduled to travel with his school band to Disneyland. He initially felt nervous about going on his own, so we decided to make a vacation out of it and go as a family. He would still be traveling with the school group, but we would more or less follow them around (in a completely breezy and non-helicopter-y way of COURSE) and have our own fun and check in with him now and again. Flights and hotels were booked, plans were made. Then, a huge winter storm hit our city the day before we were supposed to leave. The airline cancelled the flight for the school group, and their travel agent tried to rebook, to no avail. Not too surprising with a large group. So, the difficult decision was made to cancel the whole group trip and to try to reschedule for a later date. That left our family with its own decision to make. Since our flight was still on, we made the choice to go ahead and take the trip, and make the best of it. Then, the evening before we were supposed to leave, our flights were also cancelled. We spent a couple of hours trying to figure out what we could do, but as it turned out, that wasn’t much. We made the second difficult choice in 48 hours, which was to shelve our trip as well. We broke the news to the kids, and they said…”okay.” That was pretty much it. “Okay.” They knew we had done everything we could, and they could see and hear the storm that was raging outside—the worst storm any of us had ever experienced in 20 years in Colorado. Then they started arguing over what tv show to watch. By the next morning, they were making contingency plans. “Does that mean we can go see Captain Marvel?” “Can I go hang out with my friends, since we’ll be in town?” And so it went.
I have to say, I was in some shock. It’s not that the kids weren’t disappointed—they were. We all were. But they almost immediately released their attachment to our plans and to the trip, and allowed space for other plans and ideas to come to mind. It took me a little longer, but eventually I did too. I had been burning the candle at both ends before we were planning to leave with work and volunteer commitments, and now I had time to rest. We now had time off with nothing planned—something that almost never happens in our house. I wasn’t sure how I’d get my taxes done in time after we got back without burning some more midnight oil—now there was time and space to finish this important task, however boring it might be. I have an important volunteer commitment coming up in a few weeks, and now there is more time to focus on that as well. I already feel less stressed than I did before we had planned to leave. Lots of silver linings, to be sure. But it takes conscious choice—we have to choose to focus on opportunity rather than loss, and on hope rather than disappointment. My children showed me this week that we always have that choice. They inspired me. I don’t share this experience as a way of humble-bragging about my kids—as great as they are, they aren’t unique in their capacity for letting go of attachment to an outcome. I share this because it’s a powerful reminder that we can all let go, anytime we choose. We are all resilient enough to withstand the disappointment, pain, and even the grief that comes with loss. We just have to allow it to pass through us and, in its passing, create space for something else to arise.
To me, that is the most important lesson of this experience. Not just that I or my kids could make it through a difficult experience. It’s not a lesson of survival. Instead, it’s a lesson in what can be created when you allow feelings and experiences to move through you instead of doing battle with them. If we had fought against our disappointment and our feelings of what “should” have been, we’d be stuck. We’d be so focused on what we were missing in California that we’d actually miss what is happening right here, right now. The blue sky after the storm, the happiness of our dog when we picked her up early, and the peace of a warm and comfortable home when you have nowhere to be because you told everyone you were leaving town. Even the extra time to write this blog post was a gift. There are gifts in every experience, even the difficult ones. We just have to NATO our way through to find out what they are.