What Losing My Luggage in Nepal Taught Me About Decision Making
You know that feeling you get when you're in a Nepalese airport and realize that all your luggage is gone?
If so, my sincere condolences. Otherwise, let me fill you in.
A few weeks ago, I was in Nepal leaving the Kathmandu airport with only the clothes on my back. This was not according to plan. The plan was to complete the Annapurna circuit, a 200km trek across the Himalayas, and to do that I was going to need a lot more equipment.
Before I continue, first a brief recap of events that led to this moment. I arrived in Kathmandu via a flight from China where I was visiting friends and family. I left China via the Beijing Capital International Airport. When I left, I carried a 65L Osprey backpack filled to the brim with new REI trekking equipment which I had purchased only the week prior.
I didn't know this at the time, but my 09:15 flight out of the country had been changed to a flight leaving 1h earlier. Around midnight the previous night, an email was sent by travelocity informing me of this change. This email was swallowed by the great firewall of China which rendered Gmail unusable in the country. And so when I went to the airport that morning, I didn't understand why the China Eastern Airline clerk couldn't find my name on the flight. After some digging on travelocity, I found that my new flight left at 08:30. Ticketing closed 40min before departure and the time was 08:04. I would not be able to get on this rescheduled flight.
I made a quick dash to the ticketing counter and was able to rebook my original flight leaving at 09:15. Since my flight to Kathmandu had a layover in Kunming China and because I had "changed" the first leg of my flight, the airline clerk explained that I would need to retrieve my checked bag at Kunming and check it in again to my final decision.
This wasn't a problem in in theory since I had a 2h layover in Kunming. In practice, the flight was over an hour late in landing. I knew that I would not be able to get my ticket if I waited for my luggage so I made the decision to run to the arrival gate, foregoing my luggage. I reached the counter exactly 40minutes before departure and the airline clerk grumpily printed my ticket. He told me the plane would finish boarding in 10 minutes and that if I got on the flight, I would not be able to retrieve my luggage. I asked the clerk if there was a later flight but was told the next flight would be leaving three days later. My choices were to leave now and have the airline ship my luggage on Monday or stay in Kunming for three days and leave Monday with my luggage. I choose the former.
And so I arrived in Kathmandu feeling naked as I looked around at the people around me with carts of luggage and backpacks. I met up with my friend from college who was doing the trek with me and explained the situation. Neither one of us were pleased but we made the best of the situation, using the extra days to travel around Kathmandu and make day trips (on the rooftops of overcrowded buses) to surrounding cities.
I told my friend that I had already mentally accepted my pack as lost. In fact, I made a list of all the things I would need if/when my luggage didn't arrive. I also mentally kicked myself for not only losing a bag with brand new trekking equipment but also for leaving ~$600 USD in the bag. All in all, it was around $1500 of money and equipment.
On the days leading up to the date when the luggage was supposed to arrive, my friend took every opportunity to remind me that it probably wouldn't come. While I was the one who originally said that I didn't expect to see my luggage, the constant reminder struck a nerve and led to our first dispute.
I told my friend to back off. That his constant bringing up of the issue wasn't helping. That as much as I tried to brush it off, a part of me was deeply upset at losing my pack. To this point, my friend replied replied with his own laundry list of complaints. He was upset as well. The stunt with my luggage was costing us valuable trekking time when we were already under a tight timeline to begin with. My friend also criticized my decision making. That I shouldn't have left my bag behind like that. He said that he wasn't surprised that something like this happened.
We proceeded to walk in silence for some time, processing what the other had just said. The criticism about my decision making struck another nerve
- this was not the first time this point had been brought up.
It's true that at one point in my life, I developed a (well earned) reputation for not thinking things through. I made impulsive decisions, climbed buildings and went on impromptu trips with little forethought. One example is a 200 mile bike ride from Houston to Austin over a long weekend in college. The trip was made with the same friend that I was currently in Nepal with. We made the trip without food or water and only one road bike between the two of us (and one regular bike) which we took turns riding. We brought one bike pump but never bothered to check if the pump valve matched the bikes (it didn't). We didn't know where we would stay the first night and ended up in the middle of nowhere lying in the back of someone's suburban. We didn't realize how painful it would be to ride a bike 200 miles over bad roads and no bike shorts and I had trouble sitting for the week afterwards. It was a miracle that we made it out of Houston.
I used to justify my behavior by claiming to be a big picture sort of person. I didn't want to be caught in the details. As I mention in a previous blog entry, I believed details are decoys to a meaningful life. I believed that as long as I had the right goals, I would be able to work out the details along the way.
A wise man is someone who is able to change their believes given new evidence - while I can't claim to be wise, I did change my mind about details. My major focus for the past two years has been to do a better job focusing on the details and making better decisions. But as this luggage situation showed - I still had a long way to go.
I could argue that this wasn't my fault. That the great firewall blocked the notification of my rescheduled flight. That the flight that I ended up on was 2h late. That there were no other flights going to Kathmandu for three days. That I left my money in the bag because I didn't have time to take it out in the heat of the moment. But I knew I wasn't being honest with myself. I've flown enough to know that almost all my flights get rescheduled. I could have booked tickets from China using a different email account. I shouldn't have kept money in a checked in bag in the first place. I could have done much more.
So instead of arguing, I conceded the point to my friend and we settled our dispute. My bag never showed up. I ended up buying all my gear at a local trekking shop. Since I was getting all my equipment from one place, I was able to bargain for a discount. One consolation was that trekking equipment in Nepal costs a fraction of what it did in America, and I purchased everything (pack, sleeping bag, shoes, clothing, etc) for under $200.
As for the actual trek, we managed to complete it in its entirely within the two weeks. We even had time for a 3 day side trip to Tilicho lake (claimed by Nepal to be both the highest and biggest lake but at 4919m and 4.8 square km, it was neither). Life was simple within the mountains
- every day our schedule consisted of eating, trekking, journaling and sleeping. The simplicity of our daily routine allowed us to shift focus to other parts of our lives.
For me, it was a reflection of my decision making process. For years now, I've been keeping a journal of all the mistakes that I've made (of which there are many). I've drawn many lessons from these journals and used the trek to distill these learnings into something more concise I could use for future decisions. Through this process, I came up with the following checklist.
- Important? What is the impact? Is there a higher priority problem that needs to be worked on? Does doing this align with my goals and values? Are we solving the real underlying problem or just addressing symptoms?
- Biases? Emotional bias? Sunk cost bias? Think like Spock.
- Assumptions? What do I believe to be true and are these truths valid?
- Analyze. What are the details of the current situation? Put on Sherlock hat and really understand the situation and precursors that led to it.
- Contextualize. What is "normal" for this situation? Is this normal? Have I encountered something in the past that was like this?
- Plan. Think of next moves. Explore different branches. Draw out pros and cons of following each branch. What are the effects and consequences of these actions?
- Prepare. What actions can I take now? Isolate and tackle long poll tasks.
- Contingencies. Plan for things not going according to plan. Do plans take into account edge cases? What about the worst case scenario? Have backup plans.
- Salvage. If a move doesn't go your way, is there still something positive you can get out of it?
- Improve. If a move does go your way, does it make sense to settle for the original goal or should I set sights higher?
- Clean up. Are there loose threads that I need to be resolved? Outstanding issues? Reap what you sow.
- Verify. Make sure problem really has been solved.
- Review. Are there any lessons I can take away from this?
This checklist sums up all the lessons I have learned (so far) about problem solving. While I've always been aware of these lessons, it is still easy for me to skip over specific steps (2 and 3 are my Achilles heel). By explicitly listing out my decision making process and consulting this list when faced with a problem, I plan to make better choices. After all, it has been proven that the humble checklist is still one of our best tools when it comes to mastering complicated processes.
As a bonus, when we came back to Kathmandu, I received notice that my luggage arrived. The bad news is that inside my pack was a bag of fruit my cousin had gifted me in Beijing before I left. After two weeks of sitting around and being squeezed by other pieces of luggage , it had gone bad and juices oozed from the once fruit-like lumps onto the other articles inside my pack. I was afraid that the airport would book me for unleashing some toxin inside the premises. Luckily this scenario did not play out and instead I walked away from the experience with both my backpack and a better understanding of my decision making process. I hope it will also be helpful to readers but if you only take away one lesson, remember this
- never check in fruit with your luggage (it's a rotten idea).