When the Unthinkable Happens

It was 4:45am yesterday when I left my home near San Luis Obispo for a 6am flight to San Francisco. I was on my way to Illinois for a workshop this morning and S.F. was my layover before Saint Louis and a 2-hour drive.

We arrived just after 7am so I had roughly 4 hours until my next flight. I’d packed a pillow and planned to catch some Z’s, but the smell coming from Peet’s was too good and one vanilla latte later I was creating some new slides thanks to caffeinated inspiration.

Arriving so early allowed me to score a fancy bucket seat next to the counter at Gate 65. I worked and read comfortably for the next few hours until the gate attendant announced that we would be boarding soon. I packed up and closed my eyes briefly to await the call for boarding Group 3.

I woke suddenly to see the words “Boarding Closed” above the counter.

… what?

I asked the gate attendant if we’d started boarding yet and she said, “Actually, ma’am, we just finished.”

Though the plane was still at the gate, the attendant explained that FAA regulations make it illegal for her to reopen the cabin door. In closing my eyes for what I thought was a second I had missed the final boarding call by less than a minute.

What happened next looked like this:

  1. Total disbelief.
  2. Overwhelming anger at self – I had ONE job. Get on the plane. Not hard.
  3. Stood pathetically at the window, one hand on the glass, watching my flight leave.
  4. Brief comedic relief by rewriting the opening verse of Adele’s “Hello” while watching the plane pull away…


It’s me.

I was wondering if after all this time you’re gonna leave

Without me sitting

In 15C

I closed my eyes for just a second

And now I’m up shit creek…”

[click here to sing along with instrumental karaoke]

  1. Tears.
  2. Conversation with the most encouraging, optimistic United Airlines representative who excitedly announced I was first on standby for the next flight at 5pm. There were still 14 unbooked seats so he said my chances were “crazy good”.
  3. Washed face.
  4. Beer. Caesar salad.
  5. Shifted perspective to view the next 6 hours as ‘bonus time” in which to polish my presentation.
  6. Laughed at self. Got to work.

Fast-forward 6 hours to the not-so-optimistic attendant at Gate 76 telling me the flight is oversold and my chances of boarding are on the slimmer side of none.

18 minutes later “Mr. Butterick” was asked to come to the counter and awarded an apology for the mister part and seat 11D.

Why tell this story? Well, because sometimes the thing we think could never happen actually does. (Who gets to the gate 4 hours early and then misses the flight??)

Secondly, because when the unthinkable happens we immediately have choices. What’s done is done – not even Adele could stop that plane from leaving. Feel it, discern what’s controllable and what’s not, and move forward with the resources at your disposal.

And finally, because our ability to reframe a negative situation to highlight the new opportunities that now exist (i.e. 6 hours of “bonus time”) makes a world of difference in our overall experience.

(Beer and a little luck don’t hurt either.)

Cheers to whatever life has in store for us this week. We got this!

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