An Alternative to Mythic Mindset

Today, I almost missed my flight. I woke up 110 minutes late. But, thanks to some heroics by my Uber driver, preparation on my part, and having the correct mindset, I was still able to make it on time. That mindset, however, was not a mythic mindset, and, in fact, I think that having such a mindset would have been actively counterproductive in my situation. Here, I'll try to outline a more productive mindset for use in situations like this one.

As far as I understand it, the mythic mindset is one that uses narratives to guide one's next actions. You look at where you are now, what kind of person you are, and ask yourself, "If this was a story, and I was the protagonist, what would I do next?" For example, when Valentine went to meet his sensei in New York, he left without knowing whether his teacher would actually be present. He relied on understanding his place in the narrative well enough to ensure that he would meet his teacher when he arrived. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened, with his teacher arriving from an overseas trip on the same day that Valentine flew in.

While it seems like I did exactly the same thing, I think I held a different mindset. My mindset was not one of narrative. At no point did I ask myself about the plot of the "story" I was living out. It was one of problem solving. I tried to put myself in the same mindset of one of my personal heroes, James Lovell. But in doing so, I was not attempting to live out the same narrative that James Lovell lived out when he commanded Apollo 13. I was asking myself, what would a pilot like him do in my situation? How would he approach the problem?

I took my one impossible problem (get to the boarding gate by at least 10 minutes before the flight departs) and broke it down into smaller problems, which, while they seemed equally impossible, at least could be approached individually. I thought to myself, "In order to get to the gate, I need to get to the airport. In order to get to the airport, I need to get out of my apartment. In order to get out of my apartment, I need to get dressed." And then, at every stage, I consciously worked to shave time and maximize my odds, while knowing viscerally that the odds were very much against my making it to the plane on time.

Moreover, while I failed critically in the task of waking up on time, I had prepared in other ways, and that preparation became even more crucial in this crisis situation. I did the work of making sure I had finished packing the night before. I had printed out my boarding passes and written the departure gate down on them, ensuring that I didn't have to stop once I got into the airport to find out where the flight was leaving from. I had signed up for TSA Pre-Check allowing me to use the priority lines at the security checkpoints. While normally these were all matters of convenience, in this instance these preparations were absolutely crucial to being able to make my flight.

Another form of preparation was creating a checklist. Even though I was not able to complete all of the items on the checklist, the mere act of having a checklist ensure that I was able to be intentional about the steps that I was skipping, ensuring that nothing truly important (like grabbing my wallet and keys) got skipped. The checklist also allowed me to be confident in my preparation - I was able to tell, at a glance, that everything important had already been taken care of, and that the only thing I really needed to do was get dressed, grab my gear, and run out the door. This stands in utter contrast to the way that Valentine lacksadaiscally hopped on a plane, without doing any kind of advance preparation to see if his teacher would even be in town when he arrived.

Even more importantly than my advance preparation, however, was my mindset. When I woke up, and I noticed that I was almost two hours late, I felt what could only be described as a yawning sense of despair. And there was the temptation to just "accept" what had happened. "I got up two hours late, and I missed my flight." Shikata na gai, to use the Japanese expression. Nothing to be done. And for about thirty seconds, I seriously considered just going back to bed, and writing off plane tickets as well as the cost of the conference that the plane trip was taking me to. But that's not what Jim Lovell would have done. That mindset would not have brought Apollo 13 back to Earth. So, instead of accepting what had happened, instead of planning to do my best, I planned to succeed. I planned to succeed while having the acrid taste of probable failure in the back of my mouth (and yes, I am speaking literally when I talk about taste - I didn't have a chance to brush my teeth).

When I did succeed, I did not credit some ineffable power of narrative for my success. I credited the preparations I had made. I credited my Uber driver (and tipped him well). I credited the fact that I'd made the decision to get TSA PreCheck, 4 years ago. And it was these concrete steps that I took, not omens or narrative that were the primary determinants of my success.

Finally, the last (and most important) difference between mythic mindset and my mindset this morning was in planning for the future. When a plan succeeds against all odds, the mythic mindset appears to say, "Well, all's well that ends well." My mindset does not. Just as NASA studied the Apollo 13 mission to determine what could have been done better, I'm now looking back on this morning to see what I could have done better. Perhaps it would have been best if I had chosen not to go to bed the previous night, since I am a heavy sleeper and I did appear to have slept through at least a couple of alarms. Perhaps, in the future, I ought to schedule red-eye flights instead of early-morning ones, since I have shown to myself that there is a nontrivial probability that I won't wake up for an early morning flight.

In short while myths and narrative may bring you peace of mind, if you want to actually succeed against the odds, it helps to think more like NASA and less like Homer.