Out of Office: How a Drunk in First Class Got Me a Box of Compost — and Perspective

This post is part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers and members share their business travel advice and stories from life on the road. Read all the posts here.

Despite being active in social media and a self-professed extrovert, I’m determinedly anti-social when it comes to travel — I dread being stuck next to talkative seat companions for long trips. I gladly trade off the opportunity to meet someone new for some peace and quiet. As a result, my travel kit consists of an eye mask, one very dorky neck pillow, and a Ziploc bag of brightly colored earplugs (so that you can see that I’m wearing them and can tell that I want to be left alone).

That’s why I was aghast on a business trip three years ago to find myself next to an ebullient man in his 30s as my seatmate. I had been upgraded to first class (yes!) flying from Detroit to San Francisco. He had obviously had a drink or two before boarding and explained that he was heading to San Francisco to see his “hot” new girlfriend, how he had gotten her a nice gift (a gorgeous diamond and emerald bracelet), and had a great high-paying job. And this was all explained to me before the airplane door had even been shut.

My earplugs went straight into my ears. But that didn’t stop him. In the next hour, he had two more drinks until the Delta flight attendants cut him off when they saw that he was intoxicated. He tried to sneak into the galley, got belligerent, and started bullying me to get drinks for him.

The kind attendant was very sympathetic, but with a packed plane, he explained that the only open seats were in economy. An off-duty Delta pilot had offered to swap seats with me, but I couldn’t imagine subjecting someone to the drunk for another three hours. So I said I would just move back and sit next to the pilot.

That’s when I met Jack Chambers, a very tall, striking pilot who gallantly offered to sit in the middle seat. I couldn’t subject him to that torture, so I sat in the middle seat. Against my nature, I started a conversation with Jack, as I was still reeling from dealing with the drunk. I learned that Jack has a passion for gardening and had started a side business at his home in Sonoma growing worms.

As I have a garden, we struck up a conversation about vermiculture and I learned a great deal about worms, castings, and how Jack’s compost was unique. We also discussed leadership, and I got some valuable insights about leadership, particularly how he prepares and leads different airplane crews for each flight. As a captain of 747s with 33 years of experience, he had a lot to share.

As we landed in San Francisco, Jack offered to send me a box of worm compost and I sent him a copy of my book, Open Leadership. That box of compost was used to grow our first giant pumpkin which came in at 317 pounds.

I also learned an important lesson — I should be more open to learning about the people I have the privilege of sharing space with for a few hours. Since then, I’ve run into my friend, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, who overheard me talking with my seatmate (one of the investors in Birchbox). I’ve met Leah Hunter, the friend of one of my colleagues and a writer at Fast Company, and the parent of one of my child’s schoolmates.

In opening myself up to these small conversations, I’m reminded of the multitudes of connections we each share, making each business trip less of a burden and more of an adventure. What started out as a nightmare trip with a drunk seatmate turned into a life lesson for me — and I hope you’ll find the silver linings in your travel adventures as well.

Photos: @TheLotusCarroll/Flickr; Author’s Own