In all my travels I had never looked out an airplane window at 20,000 feet and seen nothing but dust. But the other day, wanting to see the landscape below while flying over Northern Nigeria en route to Abuja I looked out and saw nothing but the Harmattan winds swirling dust from the Sahel. Huh, I thought. That’s new.
So much of our work can become so ordinary, so routine. Even travel, at least for me at this point. There is so much I no longer think about. I have a bag in my closet with all the essentials: compression socks, money belt, plug adaptors, travel sized shampoo. I now know which pants wrinkle least and which shirts dry overnight when hung over the shower rod in a humid hotel. I toss them into the same bag I’ve used for a decade along with a few books, an ample supply of chocolate, a bottle of cipro, a stash of the best instant coffee I can find, and I’m done. I no longer read the Lonely Planet guides before I go. I’ve become immune to the romance of travel. Now it’s just packing up and saying goodbye.
The danger with my auto-pilot attitude isn’t so much boredom, but feeling like I’ve done it all, learned it all, seen it all. The danger is in closing down my sense of wonder, of strangeness, because I feel like I know what I am doing. If inexperience has its pitfalls, so does competence. Sure, I know how to write a strategy, but it won’t be very good unless I entertain the possibility that this time I really don’t know what the heck I am doing. I think good and creative work requires a certain sense of the world being bigger, weirder, more interesting than we ever imagined. If the word isn’t somewhat unknowable and unknown, we can fool ourselves into thinking we already know enough, and we can stop being curious, stop be awed.
It’s fine for packing to be a habit, for international travel to be routine, but the work – the people – never should be. I’m glad the Harmattan moving over the Sahel reminded me of that.