Lessons from 2012: Answers are sometimes as close as an armrest

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our own Ryan Johnson penned this commentary for The Denver Egotist’s “What I Learned This Year – Colorado Visionaries Speak” series.


The truth is, our problems are rarely as ominous as we make them out to be. And sometimes, what people want most…is an armrest. Allow me to explain.

So this year, I boarded a plane. I was lucky enough to be seated in the bulkhead. In the moment, of course, this barely made up for the burdens of our business that sat down with me. Now, if you have been on an airplane lately, you know every flight is overbooked. So, the guy in 6A and I eyed each other optimistically, while noticing 6B remained empty. The steward was about to reach for the microphone, announce that it was time to cut ourselves off from the world and close the door just as 6B showed up.

He burst through the door like a German Liberace.

Swinging his briefcase at the heads of the unsuspecting first class passengers. Apologizing, “Entschuldigen sie bitte,” to each row in a heavy German accent. iPad, magazine, newspaper and iPhone clutched in his non-assault hand. Red-faced and sweating it was as if he–in his bright red jeans and silver high-tops and Wham! backup dancer t-shirt–had suddenly realized he wasn’t at the airport to just drink beer and stain his t-shirt with mustard. He was at the airport to catch a flight. He had clearly sprinted from the bar to do just that.

He hurriedly settled in. For the next two hours we waged an epic battle over the armrest. He would lay claim. I would counter with the deep breath draw in, expand and push. This year, I learned that in the chess match for the armrest, he whose elbow is closest to the seat back has the leverage. And he who has the leverage wins.

I learned how to remain fake-sleeping while sustaining near-full blown punches to the bicep and forearm. I also learned that maybe the German in 6B needed the armrest more than I did. That maybe my problems aren’t that all-consuming. Maybe by providing the one thing people need, you’ll win in the end. These lessons reminded me once again that we work in a business of compromise.

This year, I learned that true wisdom is the ability to know which fights are worth fighting. Which of those compromises are worth making. Or not. I learned that the armrest can stand for a lot of things. A laugh. An opportunity. A belief. A team. I learned that my job is to make sure people on both sides of the armrest feel like they have all the comfort they need. And then some.

I learned that often times the fights not worth fighting are the most stressful. The most unfulfilling. But, the easiest to turn into leadership opportunities. I learned that knowing the fights to fight makes all the difference.

However, that day at that time, I chose not to subscribe to those higher notions. Not to relent and give up my hard-fought position on the armrest. I denied all aspirations to attain loftier ideals. No, this day I chose to win that particular game of armrest. I don’t know why. However, my win was acknowledged as the plane headed in for its final descent. As the landing gear opened into place, my eyes opened to 6B looking me squarely in the face. He boldly declared out of frustration in his heavy German accent,

“Du knowest, zie awmvest ist un give und take.”

I responded almost unconsciously in my very much feigned German accent,

“Zat ist vie you give und I take.”

I learned one more thing this year: sometimes, it’s too much fun to mess with people who tuck bright red jeans into silver high-tops.

To read the entire 2012 ‘What I Learned’ series, click this.