We arrived in Manila early on a Friday evening. Our plane touched down around 6:00 PM, and by the time we had made it out of customs, got our luggage and found the hired van that would transport us to our Airbnb, it was already dark outside. I could feel the heat and the thickness of the air as we moved from the air conditioned waiting area to the van. It felt similar to when I landed in Hawaii back in 1991, but hotter, more humid and no plumeria fragrance in the air.
The only thing I could really see as we slowly inched our way from the airport to our accommodations was the long line of taillights on the skyway. I had heard about the traffic in Manila and from what I’ve learned so far, Friday night traffic is some of the worst. But really it felt like any other big city with a lot of traffic. Neat lines of slow moving cars inching forward on their way to their destinations. What I would find out the next day, was that the darkness hid the orchestrated chaos of how traffic flows here.
The next morning, we took a Grab, the Philippines’ version of Uber, to a local coffee shop for breakfast. Even though it was early and it was a Saturday, I began to see what it meant to drive in Manila. Yes, there were lanes and signage, but what really seemed to be the rule of the road, was do whatever you needed to do to get where you needed to go without hitting anything or anyone. That last part is important.
It was exhilarating to watch our Grab driver maneuver through intersections that had no discernible traffic lights for guidance. He would weave in and around jeepneys, tricycles and pedestrians, coming within six or so inches of other cars. I had been warned that driving in Manila was not like driving in the United States and that warning was spot on.
My first two weeks here, I distinctly remember telling many friends back in the states that I would “never drive here!” And I sincerely believed those words coming out of my mouth. It seemed like a true improbability. If I were a betting woman, I would have put money that Carol Surban would not be behind the wheel of a large automobile in Manila. It was around this time that a good and wise friend, who has lived in many different countries and cities in the world, reminded me that things we find so completely out of our current comfort zone have a way of edging their way in given time and exposure.
That observation made me remember a talk I heard by the inspirational Carla Harris at the Global Institute for Leadership Development conference last year in California. She said that when you face something you are afraid of, look to your past. In your past you will surely find times when you have faced something similar and found a way through it. Take strength and confidence from what you’ve done before and apply it to what is in front of you right now.
It resonated with me at the conference and it really resonated with me as I began to realize that I really would need to drive in Manila. I think each one of us, whether we are 25 or a newly minted 45 like myself, has had to look self-doubt and fear straight on and resolve to do it anyway, whatever it is. Those times from your past are a goldmine of encouragement and perspective making for current challenges and fears.
When I thought about driving in Manila with these two new ideas along for the ride (comfort zones naturally expand over time and my past success could give me the courage to take on a present challenge), I started to think it was possible that I could do it.
As the weeks wore on and I observed and learned more and more about how driving worked here, my comfort zone did naturally expand to include the notion of driving. And when fear rose up, as it did quite a few times before I actually got behind the wheel, I would remember taking on other challenges from my past and the pride and satisfaction I gained from doing the hard thing.
One memory in particular really bolstered me. It was the summer of 2011 and the company I worked for was gearing up for a big annual project. The regular project manager was going to be out on maternity leave during most of the project and I had been identified as a good replacement for her as I knew the project well and had shown myself to excel at project management and many aspects of the project overall.
My boss presented the opportunity to me and I immediately said no. I was gripped by a fear of failure and overwhelm at the prospect of managing a project that big. He asked a few more times before it became clear that it was no longer a request. Fear of failure and really fear of not being perfect (that’s a topic for another blog post) held me tightly for at least a week before I started to engage in the work. I made timelines. I created project task lists with accountabilities assigned. I identified resource gaps. Once I got into the flow of doing the work, the work got done. I made mistakes along the way, but the project was a success and it became one of my career touchstones for pride, accomplishment and growth. I also learned a great deal about leading and managing on that project, but I think the biggest lesson was learning that fear alone is never a good reason to opt out of a challenge.
Fear, really, is the first and most natural response for a lot of us endeavoring to do something new, something different. If we can recognize that it’s just step one in a process, then we can move onto step two and step three and suddenly find ourselves making a left hand turn in an intersection that has eight lanes of traffic leading into it with no stop lights and no traffic guards.
It’s worth remembering that our comfort zone is an evolving place that we control by our willingness to engage in new things, observe, learn from others and ultimately by being willing to try when there is no guarantee of success.
The same wise friend that reminded me about our changing comfort zones, often refers to the “new norm.” What starts out scary, exciting and unimaginable can over time turn into your new norm. Driving in Manila isn’t quite my new norm yet, but I’m on my way to making it that.
Pop Culture Note: As I wrote the sentence, “If I were a betting woman, I would have put money that Carol Surban would not be behind the wheel of a large automobile in Manila.” something musical clicked in my brain. This was from a song! But what song? And then it hit me…Once in a Lifetime by The Talking Heads. The lyrics go like this…
And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
That’s probably about the most perfect song to have popped into my head at that moment. Indeed, how did I get here! No matter, I’m here now and I’m driving our big blue truck to the next stop….Letting the days go by…Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground…