There’s a difference between knowledge and experience, and sometimes you run smack into the divider between the two. Confusing them can lead to failure, but if you push past the discomfort, you may find that there is also strength in failure.
My recent solo trip to England and Paris really tested the limits of what I knew in my head vs. what I needed to know through experience.
Some of the lessons were simple. How do you navigate the London Underground for the first time? What do you do when you miss your train connection? What happens when the adapter you bought was mislabeled and doesn’t work?
Others lessons are bigger and have more potential consequences. What happens when you repeatedly misread military time? You miss your flight to Paris, leaving you feeling helpless and embarrassed in the middle of Heathrow.
It’s not like I don’t know how to read military time. Of course I do, but it’s not a skill I use often. That small difference between my knowledge and my experience set off a chain of events I never could have anticipated.
Somewhere during my pre-trip planning, I figured out that my flight to Paris left at 9 pm, arriving at 10:30 pm. I wrote this information down carefully, double-checked it, and shared it with the pertinent people. By the time I left home it was firmly ingrained in my mind.
I was a little nervous about arriving so late at night. Would the Metro be safe for a solo female traveler? Would it just be easier to take an Uber? Was my rusty French going to be sufficient? Was I worrying over nothing? My AirBnB host assured me that the Metro would be safe and easy, so that settled my plans, although not my nerves.
I started the trip with a wonderful four days in England. Sure, missing my train connection was confusing, but the delay worked in my favor. I was able to meet up with another member of my business group, and we could enjoy the journey together. My travel adapter didn’t work, but it felt freeing to spend a few days without my laptop. After a long weekend spent with other amazing women in business, my head and heart were full to overflowing.
I headed back to London feeling like I could take on the world. I double and triple-checked my flight details. I made my train connection with ease. I met a new friend for afternoon tea and a trip to the National Portrait Gallery. I confidently returned to Heathrow via the Underground. I arrived at the airport almost 3 hours before my flight, feeling relaxed and excited for the next leg of my journey.
And then… The automated kiosk wouldn’t let me check my bag. I stepped into a long line and hurriedly checked my flight details once again. Absolutely certain that my flight was at 9 pm, I looked at the 19:00 on my boarding pass in confusion. That definitely wasn’t 9 pm. Had it changed? It also said I was supposed to arrive in Paris at 21:20. That wasn’t exactly 9 pm, and it sure wasn’t 10:30 at night.
A knot formed in my stomach as I realized I couldn’t trust my knowledge at all in that moment. When had I misread the time? Was I misreading it now?
Sure enough, I was late for my flight. It left in 35 minutes, and I should have already been through security. Even worse, it was the last flight to Orly for the night. It would have been so easy to leave the museum an hour earlier. How could I make such a stupid mistake?
I went from feeling like I was a smart, accomplished entrepreneur traveling the world to feeling like a complete failure, in just a few minutes.
British Airways was wonderful. They booked me on a flight to Charles de Gaulle instead of Orly. I would arrive at 10:50, just 20 minutes later than I originally anticipated. Feeling relieved and grateful, I boarded my new plane to Paris.
In the hallway to the plane there was an HSBC ad. “Success begins with…” Among the possible endings to that sentence was a tray of burnt cookies and the word “failure.” At that moment, it was exactly what I needed to hear. Even though I had failed and missed my flight, I could still be successful.
The night wasn’t over. My late arrival meant changes to my travel plans. I missed the airport bus. Trains weren’t running. I waited for the night bus, but it went past the airport without stopping. Another bus arrived arrived, causing pandemonium when the driver refused to let anyone with suitcases on board.
No longer afraid of whether my French was good enough, I spoke to my fellow travelers to find out what was going on. A gentleman with a large suitcase and no knowledge of English proposed sharing a taxi. It was almost 1 am, and after everything else that had happened, I figured, why not?
We found a taxi. We chatted enjoyably in French during the ride. The taxi driver was friendly and offered sightseeing suggestions that were off the beaten path. Being in a car afforded me views I would have missed on the Metro. The city at night was beautiful.
It wasn’t the arrival I expected when I planned my trip. I faced obstacles that, had I thought about them in advance, might have kept me home. Instead, I found a source of resilience and strength that I’d forgotten.
You too might face failure on your journey. But the answer is the same – keep going, figure out the next plan, and it will work out. You get on the next train, you catch the next flight to a different airport, you share a taxi with a stranger, and most importantly – you arrive at your destination. And you might find, as I did, that there is beauty and even strength in failure.