Who Moved My Aisle Seat?

Each time, almost without fail, I managed to secure myself an aisle seat in long haul flights. I made it a point to get the booking number as soon as possible and to pre select my seat way ahead before the travel began.

The reason is simple: I have a small bladder and in some cases I had to use the restroom almost once every hour. An aisle seat would save me the trouble of having to politely ask a stranger to allow me to cross his personal space just to relieve myself.

Most of the time I was able to get the seat myself. In some other time, I was lucky that I could ask for a seat change when I checked in. The rest of the time I just had to accept a middle seat.

Such is the case when I was preparing for this flight from Jakarta to Atlanta. I started to have a sinking feeling as I scrolled through the seating plan of the aircraft on the airline website. All aisle seats were not available. If it were a short flight, it wouldn’t bother me. I could survive being stuck between two strangers for two, three or even five hours. But it was a thirteen hour leg. Thirteen!

Arriving at the airport, I made some last attempts to request an aisle seat, but it was to no avail. So I braced myself for the worst.

And it was even worse.

Because of some mobile check in mishap, I was not allowed to check myself thru. I was not to get the boarding pass for my next leg until I checked in at the transfer desk in the transit airport.

During security check in transit in Incheon, they saw a suspicious item as they scanned my cabin luggage. They had to go through all my stuff twice, before they dig out a small pocket knife that I forgot to take out from my bag. The officer gave me a long what-were-you-thinking look before he turned his attention to the next passenger.

And for some not so strange reasons, they selected me for a random secondary physical security check. They went through my bag again, and they frisked me. They swabbed a piece of paper all over my bags, shoes, and outfit for explosive residue. As the result, I was among the last passengers boarding.

As I made my way down the aisle to my row, I saw someone else sat in my seat. I had to politely ask him to move. When I looked for an overhead bin space, all has been taken. I tried to rearrange one sparsely loaded bin to make space for my bag when the passenger sitting beneath it stopped me.”FAA regulations. The attendants put that bag horizontally because it doesn’t fit vertically,” she said. “Please put it back the way it was.”

I could feel the stare of the other passengers behind me. I was blocking their way while frantically looking for a vacant bin. I finally turned to a cabin attendant. “Could you help me find a space for my bag please?” She led me back to that same bin, pushed the content aside and said, “Do you want to see if your bag fits in here?” I pessimistically followed her suggestion, thinking that my bag was too big. But it fit!

I settled down in my middle seat, and tried to read a book. Because of snow, the ground crew had to de-ice the Boeing 777-300 ER, and it took a long time. It was already one hour past the departure time when we were finally airborne. The plane slowly climbed to its cruising altitude to avoid bad weather.

With every passing minute I could feel my bladder filling up to the point of bursting. I looked up the flight progress on the personal monitor in front of me and counted every altitude increase. I wished that the plane already reached 30,000 feet.

Suddenly there was a ‘ping’ on the PA, and the fasten seatbelt sign was off. It’s the sign from the pilot that it’s safe to move around the cabin. I quicky turned to my right hand neighbor and poked her awake. “Excuse me,” I said. I rushed past her to the aisle and walked down to the nearest lavatory.

In retrospect, it wasn’t such a bad experience. Revisiting the whole episode, I found some things I could be thankful for. I now understand that the reason I wasn’t allowed a check through was because I tried to do a mobile check in with a new passport when my US visa was on the old one. Unable to match the new passport number with its database, the system automatically rejected my check in and flagged me for inspection. That’s why I had to personally check in in transit.

The lady at the transfer desk was just arriving at her post when she took my case. She was late for work and was embarassed with her supervisor. And my case took some time to solve. She had to re-register my name, my passport and my visa in the system before she could produce my boarding pass. Yet she was all professional, and gave me a polite smile as she returned my documents.

The security officers who had to check my bag were not happy of having to go over my things. If possible, they would rather disregard their suspicion and let me pass. But they had the responsibility over the safety of hundreds of lives. They had to check. Twice.

And the secondary screening officers? I’m sure if they could choose, they would rather do something other than spending the morning running their hands all over strangers. Who knows the places these people have been to? Yet they did their job respectfully to the passengers. I was not at all feel humiliated for being chosen for a random check while other passengers watched as they rushed to board the plane. With halting English a young officer told me nicely that I had to undergo a secondary check. They patiently guided me through the process. They even smiled when they completed the check.

I learned a valuable lesson from this. You cannot really know what surprises life might throw at you. Sometimes what happens is not what you expected. The most important thing is what you get from that experience. And what you get reflects your attitude. When you react with negative thoughts, it will be a harrowing incident. On the other hand, you will get gold from dust with some patience, humility, positivity, and some bladder control.

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The Upside of Being Under Limitations

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For the third time in 4 years, I go on a diet. My weight increased a lot in the past year due to change of lifestyle and stress. Okay, the last one is an excuse.

I go to the same diet clinic that helped me lost 45 pounds (about 20 kg). This time they gave me a slightly different treatment. They gave four different types of drugs instead of the usual one type, and they insisted on a different (in other words, more expensive) intravenous medication.

But on the eating side, the same limitations apply. Red meat in small amount only once a month, fish in moderate amount only twice a month, and chicken breast as much as needed. No processed food, no flour based anything, no fried food, no sugary drinks, and no alcohol. Fruit and vegetables are allowed, except for jackfruit, durian, and avocado. For breakfast, I can only have wheat bread and low fat cheese.

One consolation is that I can drink coffee as long as it’s not instant, and as long as I keep the sugar under 5 teaspoons a day. No problem.

At first, this seemed to be a burden. My wife has to prepare meals for lunch and dinner, which means she has to get up very early. I am very indebted to her in this, because otherwise it would’ve been difficult for me to stay on the program.

Having lunch with my co-workers becomes a challenge. They all either buy or bring tasty meals that when I wasn’t on diet I would’ve had myself. “This fried chicken is good, you know,” teased one of them. And I could only scowled and continued eating my no-dressing salad.

Another problem is when we go shopping. The mall is full with restaurants, cafes and bakeries, all are offering delicious treats. I often must remind myself that I am not allowed to have those for the time being. So much temptations.

On the bright side, having few options make things simpler. Unlike before, I don’t need to fuss about what I want for lunch, and I don’t have to go out to get it. I simply eat what I brought.

When shopping, choosing a place to eat takes less time. It must be Chinese, because that’s the only place where they serve boiled or steamed chicken. No need to decide between Japanese or Italian or Sundanese.

In the morning, I simply prepare myself a cheese toasted sandwich and coffee, and I have my breakfast home. No need to take time to get breakfast at the office. I can use the extra time for other things, like writing this post.

Having less options removes a lot of clutters and allows me to structure my life better.

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Small Actions, Big Impact

I spent most of my life achieving my goals serendipitiously. I dreamed of something, and somehow, in some way, it happened. It’s like somebody was getting things done for me from behind a screen. And sorry to disappoint some of you, I didn’t actually pray for them, either.

I’m not saying that praying is not necessary. If you believe in God, I would say you should pray. And neither am I saying that you don’t have to work for your dreams. Some dreams take sweat, blood and tears to make a reality. And I do work hard to build my family estate.

Looking back the nearly 39 years of my life, one thing that I am still dissatisfied with it is how haphazardly I lived it. How un-hardworking I was. How unfocused I had been.

I am worried this will carry into my professional life. I am in the position where I can make impact in the lives of tens, hundreds even thousands of people. What keeps me awake at night is the haunting question: how can I be a good leader for those people who entrust their lives and the lives of their families in my hands?

I found that being in a leadership position is far from having the justification to brag, to demand respect. On the contrary, it is the most humbling place in which anyone can be.

I choose to live one day at a time. I made mistakes. But those are in the past. Today I choose to be a better person. Everyday is a new opportunity for me to be slightly better, to be the person I dream myself to be. The doer, the achiever, the leader.

One day I was standing in a very long line in a bank. There were only two or three windows opened for dozens of customers. From where I stand, I saw the line was skewed way to the right. And nobody did anything to fix it. I decided to do an experiment. Every time the line inched forward, I moved slightly to the left. The customers behind me followed suit. And with every step forward, the line began to skew less, until finally it became a straight line.

To have impact on my surrroundings, I only need to change myself just a little bit, every day.

20 Years Ago

At the end of the introduction of the course, I raised my hand. “Yes?” The professor examined me with his eyes from behind the lectern. “Sir, the textbook you just mentioned is the 11th edition. Is it different from the 4th edition?”

My mind went to the 4th edition of the Basic Financial Management book written by the same authors as the 11th edition. I used it in the Financial Management course in undergraduate school. If there wasn’t much difference, i could use it again and save money.

The professor grinned. “Of course it is very different,” he said. “The new edition is updated to include recent cases.”

It wasn’t until today when I skimmed through the new textbook that I realized something. My third semester in college was almost 20 years ago! By then, I bet nobody here had ever heard about Enron, and some of my class who took accounting major had their eyes on Arthur Andersen for their future career.

Apple was known for Mac, and internet was still in its infancy. A 14.4 kpbs internet connection was already considered fast. Mobile phones came in briefcases. The most widely used OS for PC was Microsoft Windows 3.11. The crew of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation were the only ones who used tablet computers. A 100 kb attachment was enough to suffocate an e-mail server, and a 512MB Harddisk was enough to run a small server. A Big Mac meal in Jakarta cost about a sixth of its price now in Rupiah. US and European boybands (and girlbands) were making it big.

And now, I’m writing this on a 64GB iPad, and online through a 14.4Mbps mobile internet connection. A thousand times more bandwidth than 20 years ago. Wirelessly.

Looking back into the past like this only makes me wonder what the future will be in the next 20 years. Flying cars? Interplanetary travels? Food replicators? Holographic music concerts? Fully humanoid robots?

And so with this I must remind myself to return to my work.

Talents and Career Choice: Should They Match?

My best friend is a dance fanatic. He loves to dance so much that he took dance lessons, performed on stage on occasions, and took part in competitions. He read biographies of Nureyev and other ballet dancers, and took to learn ballet on his own. On top of that he is also into drawing and music. Immersed in 80’s music in his childhood, it became part of his identity as an artist.

For his career, he chose to be an accountant.

Nevertheless, he struggles with the question of whether he should keep his day job or pursue a career in performing arts. He longs to spend his days doing what he loves. He already holds a comfortable position in the accounting firm, and leaving that to start anew in a very different career seems to be very risky.

So he decided to audition for a televised talent competition to showcase his dance prowess. He’s hoping that by appearing on TV he could share his talent with a wider audience, and it turn that might open new doors for him to jump careers.

Unfortunately, in the second round, the jury voted against him.

What struck me was the question he keeps asking himself. What is the purpose of his having all this talent if he could not put them to use?

Which is exactly the question I have been asking myself.

A few months ago I watched a biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. As a young prince, His Majesty found love in arts. He enjoys jazz, and in school he used to play in a band. He loves photography, and he has a camera hanging around him almost everywhere he goes. He is also a skilled painter.

On 9 June 1946 tragedy struck the royal family. King Ananda Mahidol, the elder brother of Prince Bhumibol, was murdered under circumstances unclear even to this day. The Prince then ascended to the throne to be King Rama IX.

Being King, now all his attention must be given to the governing of the kingdom. With such a big responsibility, it would be understandable if the King ceased his artistic pursuit.

What I found to be inspiring is that His Majesty still makes time for art. He keeps bringing his camera when he is visiting his subjects, and takes photographs of them. And every now and then he entertains his royal audience playing jazz numbers on brass instruments.

Here is one video of his performance.
“Candlelight Blues”, King Bhumibol

If he had been born a commoner instead a royal prince, he might have chosen a career in the arts. But he became king instead. His devotion to his people is well known and well documented. He opened the palace gardens to be used as laboratories for agricultural experiments, resulting in advanced farming for the benefit of the nation. Thailand is now one of the largest rice exporters in Asia. He decreed for education for all. He left his palace and conversed with his subjects to learn of their difficulties and challengea. And he is also known and respected as an accomplished artist and musician.

Being a musician and artist he would have made a name for himself. But by rising to the occasion and ascending the throne, he made a name for his people.

Our talents are part of who we are. If we are lucky, we can make a career doing the things we love. But as human beings we are capable of achieving more than what we might have with our talents alone.

Kisah Semangkuk Sambal Matah

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Saya mengambil beberapa potong ayam betutu dari hidangan di meja prasmanan. Setelah celingukan sejenak, saya tidak menemukan sambal matah yang biasanya dihidangkan dengan ayam betutu.

Sambal matah adalah bumbu pedas yang dibuat dengan irisan bawang merah, cabe, dan bawang putih yang dimasak dengan minyak panas. Sejak pertama kali saya mencobanya di restoran Ayam Betutu khas Gilimanuk di Denpasar, Bali, saya ketagihan. Sampai saya pernah makan dengan beberapa kali menambah porsi karena nikmat sambal ini.

Ayam betutu tanpa sambal matah terasa kurang lengkap. Untuk mengobati rasa kecewa, saya mencoba mengganti dengan sambal ulek yang ada. Tapi saya masih penasaran.

Kebetulan Pak Andri, banquet captain yang bertugas hari ini, sedang berada dekat saya. “Pak, tidak ada sambal matah, ya?” tanya saya.
“Saya tanya sebentar ke kitchen ya Pak,” jawabnya. Tidak lama kemudian dia kembali. “Maaf, sambalnya tidak ada. Tapi kalau mau bisa dibuatkan sebentar. Cuma lima menit.”

Setelah mengucapkan terima kasih, saya kembali ke meja saya dan mengobrol sambil menunggu. Di luar dugaan saya, Pak Andri kembali dengan membawa mangkuk bubur yang hampir penuh dengan sambal matah yang masih hangat. “Ini sambalnya Pak. Selamat menikmati!” katanya dengan senyum ramah.

Baru sekali ini saya dibawakan sambal sebanyak itu. Biasanya sambal disajikan sedikit sekali dalam wadah kecil, dan sebentar saja sudah habis. Kali ini setelah puas menikmati ayam betutu sampai habis, masih tersisa sambal setengah mangkuk. Setengah bercanda, saya meminta Pak Andri untuk menyimpannya untuk makan malam.

Dan malamnya, banquet captain,¬† bukan Pak Andri, menghampiri meja makan saya. “Pak Stephen, masih mau sambal matahnya?” Saya cukup terkejut karena tidak menduga hal yang saya minta dengan tidak serius ternyata ditanggapi dengan sungguh-sungguh. Bahkan Pak Andri sampai menitipkan pesan pada rekannya soal itu. Saya mengiyakan dengan semangat. Setelah datang, saya membaginya dengan teman-teman semeja sampai habis.

Pak Andri masih mampir ke meja saya untuk memastikan bahwa sambal matah tadi sudah diantarkan.

Saya sungguh terkesan dengan pelayanan Restoran Srikandi The Royal Surakarta Heritage Hotel. Dari pengalaman ini saya belajar beberapa hal tentang pelayanan pelanggan :

1. Dengarkan permintaan pelanggan.
2. Berikan lebih dari yang diharapkan
3. Bekerja sama dengan rekan kerja
4. Tindaklanjuti untuk memastikan pelanggan sudah mendapatkan apa yang telah dijanjikan.
5. Anggap permintaan pelanggan sebagai peluang untuk melampaui harapannya.

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