A Philosopher and A Businessman

Musings on Business and Philosophy.

How to Wait in a Passport Queue

Big queue at immigration

A few years ago I arrived at Washington Dulles airport at the end of a long international flight. I was tired. We had crossed 7 or 8 timezones and I still had a connecting flight to St Louis to look forward to. As I rounded the last corner before the stairs leading down to the immigration hall my heart sank. The queue for passport checks snaked back and forth across the hall and up the stairs. No offence to the good folk at CBP, but with fingerprinting, face shots and a thorough verbal grilling of each new arrival, US passport queues do not tend to move quickly. This was going to be a long night.

The smartphone isn’t actually about being smart. It’s not really about productivity. The smartphone is for entertainment when you’re stuck somewhere with nothing to do. Waiting for your coffee? Take a snap of a nice looking muffin and post it to Instagram. Sat on the train? Catch up on the news. Long flight? Watch a movie. Lining up to pay for groceries? Bang out a tweet.

In a long, slow moving passport queue? Write a novel Do absolutely nothing. Phones and cameras are banned in the immigration hall. Smartphones have a phone and a camera, so presumably are double-banned.

So stuck, tired and jetlagged, standing in a queue with a thousand strangers and no distractions from reality. This is officially a first world crisis situation. What to do?

Business requires drive, creativity, imagination, discipline, ability to handle pressure and leadership qualities such as patience, empathy and emotional intelligence. None of these are physical qualities. They are mental qualities. And they can all be improved through training. The deliberate training and development of positive mental qualities is the very definition of meditation. Many people now recognise the link between a calm, well-trained mind and business performance and yet find it hard to set aside the time to do the training required to develop such a mind.

Now I’d been handed the perfect opportunity. No distractions (apart from the lady walking up and down the queue periodically reminding us not to worry about missing connections - thanks, but I’d rather you were checking passports and fingerprints). Time to strap in for a mega mental development session.

Developing Mental Stability

The ability to focus for long periods underpins creativity and productivity. If you are passionate about something that ability to focus comes naturally. However, often we need to get creative or productive in areas we aren’t particularly passionate about. The best businesses depend on all the little details being taken care of, including the boring ones.

So it’s an extremely useful skill to draw your full attention to and become fully absorbed in anything at all - including expense claims, cold calling, financial forecasting and customer support issues. By default, however, when faced with something we’re not interested in, most of us find something better to do. Like re-reading the news headlines, googling “how to defuse a bomb” (because the news headlines said there’s lots of terrorism), and getting fired up by things outside our sphere of influence (e.g. gun control in the US).

Waiting in a passport queue gives us an amazing opportunity to overcome this instinct to distract ourselves through learning to focus on an object that doesn’t particularly interest us. The classic object covered in many eastern philosophy texts is your breath. It’s readily available wherever you are.

The exercise is simple (although not necessarily easy). You observe the sensation of your breathing. Every time you notice you are thinking about or focusing on something else you bring your focus back to the sensation of your breathing. If you find the jetlag catching up and your focus fades a bit, put a little more effort in until your focus is clear again. Pretty boring, indeed. But that’s the point. You aren’t training to be the world’s best “breath-observer” (although you will be). You’re training to be the world’s best “focusser on anything I choose, even when I don’t find it particularly interesting at first, so that I can really understand it, act effectively and get stuff done.”

Over the course of 10-20 minutes of repeatedly bringing the focus of your attention back to your breath (or whatever else you chose to focus on - maybe your posture or the sensation of your feet on the floor) you should find the urge to distract yourself subsides a little bit. Discursive thoughts settle down, focus naturally rests on the sensation of your breath and even standing jetlagged in a bland hall starkly lit with fluoro tubes late at night with a bunch of strangers feels quite ok.

At that point, you could try a couple of other exercises…

Developing Gratitude

There’s a wonderful post by Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn discussing the power of gratitude in driving workplace productivity. However, Jeff also recognises that it has to be genuine. That’s all well and good, but it’s not always easy to be genuine just because someone told you it’s good for business. You can develop genuine gratitude standing in a passport queue at Dulles airport without a single #gratitude escaping into the twitterverse.

Look at the strangers around you. Take a wild guess about what they do and how they may contribute to the progress of society. Think about all the years they have put in and all the hardships they have been through to get good at what they do. Imagine the late nights they have spent working to get a project done and out the door. Maybe the lady in front is an engineer and bust a gut to get a new bridge built on time and on budget. That new bridge may shave hours each week of your commute. Thanks to her hard work and sacrifices your life is better.

Maybe they’re a sanitation worker - imagine if they didn’t turn up to work each day!

What about the wild-eyed older gent? Maybe he’s a professor of mathematics. His life’s work may not directly affect you, but maybe he’s laid the foundations for some new optimisation algorithms that are used in the airline’s planning software to match aircraft, crew, landing slots, gates, catering facilities etc allowing you to fly so cheaply and efficiently. If only the immigration department would use some of those algorithms too…

The more you reflect like this, the more instinctive gratitude becomes. Recognising it in the workplace becomes quick, easy and genuine - you have trained yourself to see it. And not just in terms of results your staff may deliver, but also what they have likely gone through to deliver those results.

Like any skill, practice makes perfect and 3 hours in the passport queue is a great place to practise.

Increasing Capacity for Handling Difficult People

People are people and are generally driven by fear, greed, lust for power and attraction to a comfortable life. Their different backgrounds will give them different perspectives on how to satisfy those drives. Their perspectives may not always be compatible with yours. The result is conflict.

Successfully resolving that conflict generally requires you to see the world from the other person’s perspective, at least to some extent. Leadership is taking responsibility for doing so rather than expecting the other person to see your side.

Once again, the ability to see the world through another’s eyes is a learned skill, and one you can develop in the passport queue.

Pick a co-queuer who looks like they are quite different to you. For example, if you are a busy, serious executive see if you can find a retiree holidaymaker, a backpacker or a hippy. Then imagine being them. Imagine the world they were brought up in. For the retiree it may be war-time or immediately post-war where many everyday necessities were rationed, where Indigenous Australians and African Americans were unable to vote and where colour television was just making its appearance. Imagine the education they received and the principles they were taught by family and society. Imagine the pain built up in their body from decades of use. Imagine how all that shapes what’s important to them now.

Once you’ve formed as good a picture of their experience as you can, try to list what they fear and what they strive for. Imagine you are looking out on the world through their eyes, and with their perspective. Imagine, as them, you are judging others in the passport queue. How does the retiree see the hippy? Are they jealous of their relative youth and freedom, or angry at their lack of respect? How do see the busy, serious executive?

Then try to find the common ground. It may be at a relatively high level - you may both respect authority, vote conservative and enjoy a little bit of luxury. Or you may have to dig a lot deeper to find what we share at a fundamental level - striving for what makes us happy and trying to avoid what hurts.

As you learn to see the world through another’s eyes, your ability to handle and resolve conflict in the workplace will naturally improve. Before too long you won’t just be solving your own conflicts, you will end up playing the diplomat between two warring parties.

And, incidentally, you will be much better placed to understand why a potential customer may buy from you.


So there you have it. A few exercises to make you a better businessperson, a better manager and a better human being. Light enough to take with you on your travels, and simple enough to do when you’re jetlagged. No smartphone required.


So what happened at Dulles? It took nearly 3 hours to get through the passport queue. I missed my direct connection to St Louis, nearly threw up at Chicago running between terminals to make a tight connection and finally got there very late that night. And I learnt a bit about myself and my fellow human beings.


Photo credit: CBP Photography

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