Showing Up

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 2002 

I stare at the flight information display in the airport and see that dreaded word ďcanceledĒ next to my flight number.  My legs feel rubbery and a sour taste invades my digestive system.  I think that at least the display could say they are sorry, or something to that effect, but ďcanceledĒ seems to have the same status on the emotionless board as ďon timeĒ.

 Once again I think of Woody Allenís famous quote that 80% of life is showing up.  In my present situation the remaining 20% is the presentation that Iím carrying on my laptop computer.  Now it seems that preparing the Powerpoint slides was really the easy part.  The hard part is going to be getting to the particular place and appointed time to show those slides.  Woody Allen was right; a lot of engineering, like life, is showing up.

 I marvel at the wisdom of Allenís observation.  How did he come up with this, and how did it get publicized?  Surely he doesnít have a problem in showing up himself. He must have minions that take him to places that he has to be, and if he doesnít get there, itís their fault, not his.  I canít imagine that he stares at information boards that say ďcanceledĒ, and waits in long lines of disgruntled passengers to talk about the hopeless situation to an overworked agent   And even if he doesnít get to wherever he is supposed to be, surely they will wait for him.

 People who are rich and famous must have writers following in their wakes at all times.  Whenever they say something quotable, it is immediately written down and publicized.  If you or I should say something like life being 80% showing up, people would look away in disgust at our naivety.  But when Woody Allen or Yogi Berra or someone like that says the same thing, people nod their heads and say, ďYou know, heís got something there.  Weíd better write it down and tell people.Ē

 Unlike what I imagine Woody Allenís situation to be, most of us are on our own when it comes to showing up.  At both ends of the trip, we often have support systems that provide emotional and logistical support.  But when youíre out there in the middle, youíre marooned on an island all by yourself, and the natives arenít friendly.  You have only yourself to depend upon, and only you will ultimately be blamed if you donít successfully accomplish the business of showing up.

 Now you would think that if your flight had been canceled, you could blame the airline when you miss your meeting.  Amazingly, that doesnít work.  People think that itís your job to show up regardless.  You should have anticipated this and gone the night before.  You should have had a backup plan.  Itís your fault.  That was 80% of life, and you failed.

 Itís interesting how your own perspective changes when you are at the receiving end of this showing-up thing.  Youíre running a meeting and an important participant nonchalantly shows up an hour late, claiming that he or she was caught in a traffic jam.  Is your first thought about that bad old traffic jam, or are you thinking that the rest of got here ok; how come that person couldnít?

Iím thinking the same thing right now about my airplane.  I got here in spite of traffic and other hindrances, and it seems that all the other passengers did too.  So where is their airplane?  The airline probably has some real good excuse, like the airplane got caught in a traffic jam, but Iím not buying it.  If youíre an airplane, it isnít just 80% of life that is showing up, itís everything.

 The intricacies of the showing-up dilemma all come to a head in the moment of truth when you set your alarm clock on the eve of a commitment.  Suppose you have to drive to an early morning meeting.  A lot of complicated risk analysis has to take place in your head.  What experimental data do you have on the probability distribution of driving time in traffic versus time of departure?  What is the effect of projected weather?  And most importantly, what are the expected consequences of being late by a given amount of time?  In the face of these imponderables, you have to make an irrevocable decision about that uncertain future.

 Even though everyone seems to take your showing-up for granted, I always feel a certain sense of personal accomplishment and triumph when Iíve arrived at some particular room in some far away place at the scheduled time.  The rest is downhill.  I take a deep breath, turn on the Powerpoint, and coast.  My 80% of life has already been accomplished.

 Robert Lucky