Look Up.

the morning 6 train

I’ve lived in New York City for four years, and in those four years, I don’t believe I’ve ever gone all Tom Friedman and written a post in which I take a tiny public transportation experience and make it into a big thing.

That, sadly, ends today.

So with apologies to the Times’s op-ed page, here’s a story:

I’m riding the subway down to work this morning, and the arrival board on the downtown 6 train has one word on it: “Delay.” I wait for a few minutes, but the subway still hasn’t arrived.

And then a voice comes over the loudspeaker: There’s a sick passenger on the train one stop away, and it’s not moving. If you want to go downtown, please go to the other side of the tracks, take a 6 uptown one stop, and then take an express train back downtown.

It’s annoying. But it is what it is.

So I start walking to the uptown platform, and a handful of people are walking there, too. But everybody else on the platform is just standing there.

The voice comes over again to repeat the message, but most people still aren’t moving.

I get to the other side of the tracks, and I look back at the downtown platform. There must be a hundred people still standing there, completely oblivious to the message from the loudspeaker. I look up and down the platform. Everyone’s in their own world, listening to something via headphones, or loudly locked in conversation with someone else. The trains aren’t moving, and they’re too busy to even notice.

Now here’s where Tom Friedman would make a profound statement about the state of the world based on that one story, and since I’m already this deep into my anecdote, here goes:

We all have ways of building little bubbles for ourselves, and shutting the rest of the world out. You throw on headphones. You hide in our offices, doors closed, or in corners of the building where you won’t be bothered. You tell yourself that you need the quiet, or you need to be productive. You need to get away.

But here’s the downside: That leaves you isolated. You miss out on the things happening all around you — sometimes little, sometimes big and obvious.

I used to laugh about a manager at my office who was infamous for a leadership style called Management By Walking Around. It seemed like such an odd way to lead. But I’m starting to see the benefits. Being visible and keeping your eyes open exposes you to what’s happening around you — at least at the surface level. It opens the door to serendipitous conversations, and as a manager, it’s certainly not a bad thing to be a noticeable presence around the building.

But first you have to open your eyes and ears. Things are happening all around you — it’s up to you to decide if you want to pay them notice.


That’s a photo of my subway platform, taken by yours truly.