Out of Our Control

As a teacher who travels to different classrooms throughout the day, I always appreciate the comments I hear while walking past rooms. For example, in my elementary school, I’ve heard such things as, “Maya, don’t climb on the bubbler!” or “Joey, leave the frog alone!”  In middle school some winners have been, “Mike, would you stop cracking your knuckles!”  and “Don’t you dare stick your finger in the pencil sharpener.”  My daily entertainment is supplied by this sort of thing.  Sometimes, though, I’ll walk by and catch parts of teacher lectures that make me want to stop in, sit down, and listen.

Today, for example, I was walking past a business and careers class just as the teacher was telling the students to review a list of life situations/circumstances, and then mark down which ones they could control, and which they couldn’t.   Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop in to hear the rest of the lecture/assignment, but her request got me thinking.

You bet there are some things we can control and others we can’t.  While I knew this prior to my eavesdropping, her statement made me consider how this logic gets lost in the stressors of everyday life when we have so many things coming at us at once. Let’s face it, while we’d like to (and often think we can) control everything, we simply can’t.  We do know this, as adults who have seen and lived through much.  So why do we get so bent out of shape and worried about the things we have no control over?

I thought about this more as I considered a conversation I had with a co-worker who had recently completed her first marathon.  As I’ve said in the past, I think the marathon is the ultimate example of something that is both controllable and absolutely out of our control. During that 3-5 hour journey, so many things can go right or wrong, regardless of how well we have prepared. It’s like there are two categories to tackle when “surviving” a marathon-  the pre-race training… and then everything else that happens on race day.  Take, for example, my friend’s race after mile 8. Up to that point, all systems were go.  She was feeling good, running at a stellar pace… when she started to notice her feet weren’t feeling so fine due to the start of a few blisters.  It turned out those blisters grew and grew until they achieved super-human status, and eventually BURST around mile 17. Ouch is an understatement.  Needless to say, the second half of her first marathon wasn’t what she had planned or hoped for. Yet, she told me, what was she going to do at that point?  She had to keep going. She ran through the pain, realizing that neither it nor the remaining 9 miles were going to go away.  Her mental toughness saved the day- that, she could control.

The need to adjust our thinking according to the situation happens in runs of all distances.  It’s also highly prevalent in our daily lives; we just tend to ignore this logic  when we fret over the things we dislike, but have no control over.  A worrier by nature, I often talk to a close friend of mine about the six million things that keep me up at night.  Her advice is as frank and succinct as the business and career teacher’s lecture.  My friend has overcome some mighty huge obstacles by employing (I’m paraphrasing from her Max Lucado book) the philosophy, “Worrying doesn’t fix anything.  It doesn’t cure cancer, it doesn’t change a test.  Your brain is only 1/2 there when you are worrying.”

I think that last notion hit home the most. You can’t do much of anything, or enjoy much of anything, with only half your brain working for you.  So, from now on, I intend to do my best to focus more on the things in my life I can control and worry less about the things I can’t.  And hopefully, by doing so, I’ll be fully present, and notice more of the scenery as I run through this thing called life.  Maybe then, it’ll be almost as entertaining as walking down the halls of school on any given day.

Keep on running, folks, and always keep your eyes and ears open to learn new things along the way.

by abbey algiers


copyright 2011

The Journey

I spent my Easter vacation doing two things I love most- relaxing at my favorite Mexican resort, and then ending the vacation by running a marathon back in the US.  It was perfect.  While at the resort, I did a little recon work for a new site I’m working on (imtravelchica… coming soon!). This was my fourth visit to the Barceló Hotel in Ixtapa, Mexico, and I wanted to really investigate what made it so special.

It turns out I didn’t have to look further than the hotel lobby.  As my husband and I got out of our cab on the first day, we were greeted by a smiling bellman.  I recognized him immediately from my visit four years ago, but wasn’t sure if he’d recognize me.  A hug from Neftali and a friendly, “Welcome Back” was all I needed to realize that it was the people who made this Mexican paradise repeat-worthy.  I made a mental note to put Neftali on my list of staff to interview.  It turned out he wasn’t the only one who did everything possible to make our vacation fabulous. From the bartenders(one invented a drink for me when they didn’t have what I was looking for) to the waitresses to the mariachis who rivaled the Titanic band in their ability to just keep on playing, everyone at the Barcelo oozed with pride and genuine enthusiasm for their jobs.

Happy bartenders make happy customers! 

While the pure motivation was evident on their faces, I wanted to get  a deeper insight to what they thought about their jobs.  Enter the Bellman Extraordinaire.  One night after dinner, I asked my lobby friend if he could share any facts about the Barceló.  In a mixture of Spanish and English, he told me that he was a writer too, and would jot some ideas down for me. I didn’t think much of this until I got a call a few hours later in my room. It was Neftali, telling me that he had prepared something for me.

I came down to find a customized file folder with my name on it, and the “asunto” (matter) boldly declared:  “To write to you why Mexico is the glory, and quite possibly paradise.”  Inside were four handwritten pages explaining why the Barceló Hotel, flanked by beautiful mountains and a gorgeous beach, and run by perhaps the happiest workers in the world, was destined to be “a tourist destination like none other.”  Needless to say, Neftali was very into his job. He declared that as a bellman, he actually had the most important job in the hotel, since he gave guests their first impression of “this paradise.” I couldn’t argue with him, because hey, he certainly impressed me.

Bellmen of the Barceló: David, Neftali, and Rafael

He said the role of a bellman is characterized by enthusiasm, passion, and the ability to reach out to many. However, he said the secret to his success (as evidenced by great tips and guests like myself who return many times)  was a mantra he lived by.  This was a mantra, he told  me, which could be applied to many situations, but he used it for his job. It went like this.

Neftali explained that he lives three times each day:  before the journey, on the journey, and at the end of the journey.  For example, before work each day, he comes up with a plan.  While he’s in his car, he will play out how he wants the day to go. He thinks about what he needs to do to make this happen,  assesses how he’s feeling, and decides on a plan of action.

Then, on the job with this plan in mind, he is constantly monitoring how his day is going and how he is meeting his goals.  He tries to remain a step ahead of whatever the customer wants, and deal with challenges as they arise. Many things can come up in the course of a day, he told me, so he does his best to address every situation calmly, and with a positive attitude.

Finally, when the day is over, he reviews what transpired, and thinks about what he could have done differently. He gave the example of a customer who asked for a pen.  Instead of giving her the pen he was using, he asked her to wait, so he could get her one.  When he thought about this at the end of the day, he decided he should have just given her the pen he was using, instead of wasting valuable moments of her vacation.

I was completely impressed by Neftali’s mantra, and thought about how many situations it could be applied to. Specifically, I thought about how I could use it in my upcoming marathon.  I spent the plane ride home visualizing what I wanted to happen in my run two days later, thus focusing on the  “before the journey” portion of his advice.  At this point, I realized there wasn’t much more I could do to physically prepare for the race, and I hoped that the week of relaxation (and tropical drinks) hadn’t erased the training that took place for months before.  So, instead of freaking out and getting worried, I focused on planning my run, and picturing how I wanted it to go.  I saw myself having the usual ups and downs that come with each marathon, but I pictured a calmer, smarter version of myself dealing with these situations. Maybe if I laid the groundwork early, I’d be better prepared when they came up three hours into my run.

Then came showtime, bright and early Saturday morning where I found myself  “on the journey.”  While I knew it was a rural marathon when I signed up, I guess I still thought there’d be some spectators on the route.  Thank God my husband, parents, and sister came out, or I’d have spent 26.2 miles with my running partner and the water station people and police as my only human contact for four hours. Having mostly horses, cows, and a few Amish farmers to acknowledge your existence forces you to go inside your own head for entertainment,  which can be a scary thing during a marathon.  But, I reminded myself that this was, in fact, my journey.  I decided to do as Neftali advised… make the most of the situation and do the best I could.  So, with each mental and physical demon that popped up on those (long!!!)roads, I tried to just think, “Well, here I am, in the thick of it. What do I need to do to get through?”

This thinking was helpful when my right knee felt like it was going to blow out at mile 6. I adjusted my posture, changed my stride, and felt better.  At mile 19, this was also helpful when my left foot suddenly felt like it had a stress fracture. A loosening of the shoelaces, a stretch,  and quick foot massage eased my foot and mind.  Though my running partner hadn’t heard Neftali’s mantra (and it was just way too hard to explain during a marathon), I tried to use it to help her when she was having some “rough spots.”

Unfortunately, she had more rough spots than I did in this particular marathon, which was not fun for her, but shined light on an interesting phenomena for me.  It’s much easier to be all “on the journey” when you are #1, not feeling like you’d rather get shot than run another step (I have been there many times, and believe me, it’s no fun), and #2, when you have planned ahead with your pre-during-and post journey plan.  I really think this type of thinking gave me a new way to handle this beast we runners call ” the marathon.”

And, while I did feel well enough to put some of the thoughts and revelations together on the run, it wasn’t until  “after the journey” when everything truly made sense to me.  Per my amigo’s advice, I went over what went well, what didn’t, and just sort of relished in the fact that though tough at times, I had run another marathon, and for the most part, enjoyed it.

In this “hindsight is 20/20”  fashion, I was able to truly dissect the before-during-and after of my marathon, and appreciate the power of this process.  I thought about how I could not only use it during my next marathon, but I’d also apply it to my job and other tasks in my life.  By thinking of it as a system for managing life, it made me feel calmer and more in control of my destiny.

I’m not sure if every worker at the Barceló follows this mantra, but it certainly feels like they might because of the positive customer service experiences I’ve had each and every time I’ve gone there.  It seems like this process makes it easier to see patterns of success or difficulty, and then do it all better the next time around.  Thinking like this also takes the heat off when we do make mistakes, or things don’t go as well as planned.  There’s always the next journey, where we can take what we’ve learned and move forward, stronger and more confident for success.

So, with the sentiments of my Mexican friend Neftali, let me end by wishing you journeys full of moments that help you learn and grow, and lead you to your own versions of paradise.


by abbey algiers

copyright 2011