During intermission at Cirque du Soleil last week, I saw a friend who told me that she was moving from her front row seats to the rear of the tent because she needed to leave early. Her step-father refuses to eat dinner after 7:00 PM, so they would need to leave the show a little early in order to make their reservations.
I was stunned. Leave early? A show like the circus absolutely saves their best for last.
She agreed, but this was a non-negotiable on the part of her step-father. “It’s fine,” she said.
But no. It wasn’t.
I started to think about how older folks can become set in their ways. Routines slowly calcify over time. Eventually fossilize. Before you know it, your life is filled with non-negotiables.
Where and when you will and won’t travel.
Arbitrary dietary restrictions.
But then it occurred to me that this is not an older person phenomenon. I know lots of younger people who have established rigid, unwavering routines, too. I have friends who can’t skip a meal or replace it with a snack. Friends who won’t adjust a bedtime in order to stay out late or wake up an hour or two early to play golf. Friends whose personal grooming regime requires an hour or more regardless of circumstances, preventing them from ever leaving the home in less time.
I have friends who have saddled themselves with certain driving and travel restrictions. They won’t drive into New York City. Refuse to be on the roads after midnight. Won’t take a subway. Won’t drive to a friend’s home because it’s too far away.
Colleagues establish routines that are inflexible and unwavering. A shift from an early lunch to a later lunch sends them into psychic spasms. They can’t imagine changing a homework routine. They cling to disproven methods of instruction because they’ve been doing it forever.
None of this is good.
And I’m a person with more routines than anyone I know. I aggressively and relentlessly seek out the most efficient way of doing something, and when it’s finally found, I do it that way every single time. Emptying a dishwasher. Folding laundry. Mowing the lawn. There is a fastest, best way to do each these things, and I have found the ways.
There are long stretches of the school year when my breakfasts and lunches are exactly the same every single day because it simplifies my life. I wear the same thing - jeans and a black tee shirt - onstage every time. When the event is slightly more formal, I throw a jacket over the black tee shirt. I’m close to wearing the same thing to work every day because all of these routines save me time, eliminate the need to make choices, and simplify my life.
Elysha and I were watching the The Founder, the story of Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s. In one scene, he is attempting to establish the perfect kitchen routine that will guarantee the most food produced in the shortest period of time. It was a ballet of movements that allowed kitchen staff to work in perfect concert with one another so long as they repeated their movements exactly.
Elysha paused the film. Knowing I managed McDonald’s restaurants for ten years, she turned to me and said, “Is this why you are the way you are?”
But maybe. I have admittedly structure much of my life like Ray Kroc structured McDonald’s:
Identify the most efficient means of accomplishing a task. Repeat those steps. No wasted movement.
Despite all of that, I am keenly aware of how important it is to be flexible. How flexibility opens the door to new experiences. Allows other people to intersect with your life. Allows you to find joy where there was once none.
Flexibility allowed me to begin playing golf, a game that I originally thought was boring, elitist, and ridiculous, but is now a game that I love with all my heart.
Flexibility allowed me to say yes to writing comic books and musicals, even though I didn’t think I could do either.
Flexibility landed me onstage, performing in musicals - singing solos - even though I can’t sing. It’s placed me in front of audiences at comedy clubs, even though it’s the one and only time that I feel nervous - even terrified - onstage.
Flexibility sent e to Canada to teach storytelling to the Mohawk people. It sent me to the forests of upstate New York to teach storytelling to 13 rabbis as part of a woodland retreat. It sent me to Brazil to teach storytelling at an American School. It sent me to a yoga center - the absolute antithesis of my fundamental being - to teach storytelling, and where I now teach a handful of times every year.
Flexibility allowed me to say yes when that first person asked me to officiate his wedding. It’s has landed me in front of church congregations, substituting for vacationing ministers. Conducting actual church services. Even ringing the big bell.
All of these things could have been easily avoided. All of them placed me outside my comfort zone. Required me to betray my routines. Demanded that I attempt to do something - oftentimes publicly - that I have never done before. They required alterations in routine and ritual. They asked that I do something that I could not imagine doing.
This was hard. I like routines. I love predictability. The basis for much of what I accomplish is my willingness to find and repeat the most efficient steps possible in as many things as possible. Routine, ritual, schedules, and extreme commitment to organization has afforded me the time to do all that I do.
But I also recognize the importance of breaking those routines and adding unpredictability to your life, even if it makes you anxious, uncomfortable, hungry, uncertain, or a little bleary-eyed the next day.
Telling me that you’d love to join me for golf but just can’t see yourself getting out of bed at 5:00 AM on a weekend - even once - is a terrible shame.
Telling me that you’d love to see a show in New York but need to be in bed by 11:00 PM every single day for the rest of your life is a little crazy.
Telling me that you can’t ever replace dinner or skip it altogether in order to hit the road on-time should never be a thing.
Telling me that you just can’t drive in New York City even thought you’ve never even attempted to drive in New York City is a minor tragedy.
Leaving the circus early - and making others leave early, too - because you won’t eat dinner after 7:00?