I stood on the steps and took in my surroundings. The courtyard featured the same children’s jungle gym I remembered seeing at my own apartment. It was a little like the Twilight Zone. I walked down the block to the next apartment building, and it too looked exactly the same. Again, the same jungle gym. Block after block of identical, Soviet era buildings!
I didn’t know my address and couldn’t even remember the street name. As I stood, a wild mixture of emotions took over. I was embarrassed for being so irresponsible and stupid. I was looking for anyone but myself to blame for my predicament. I felt utterly incapable of dealing with the situation. And, I truly feared for my life.
As the adrenaline kicked in, my head started to clear. It was probably after 3am at this point, and there was still plenty of daylight. Normally, we’re scared of the dark. But I would have preferred it. I felt extremely exposed wearing my Levi’s, white Nike’s, and flashy gold & black High School jacket.
The fact that we had stopped drinking before leaving to watch the drawbridge meant that I had a shot at sobering up. Still, after a few blocks, fear got the best of me. I stepped out of sight between a couple of buildings and started to shake. I felt totally helpless.
Then, I started to analyze my situation.
I remember the exact words that came into my mind:
“One of two things is going to happen to me tonight. I’m either going to get robbed and killed, or I’m going to survive.
If I focus on getting robbed and killed, I won’t be able to think clearly. I should decide that I will survive, and operate calmly from that perspective.
Yes, I’m going to survive. And one day, I’ll be able to chuckle as I tell people this story.”
An immediate sense of peace came over me. It would be over 15 years before I truly understood that peace to be the result of faith. I’m not even necessarily talking about faith in a religious sense. Just the lowest level effects of positive thinking at work.
There were a few cars passing sporadically. I waited until I saw a cab and stepped out to flag it down. The driver turned and said (in Russian) “Where to?” Hey, I actually understood him!
I concentrated on my dictionary and put together a string of useful sentences explaining my situation. We started to drive from block to block. I was at least off the street and covering ground faster. That felt better, but it was useless since I didn’t even know my own address. After about 30 minutes, he turned and said, “Politziya?”
“Da pozhalusta. Spasibo.”
(“Yes, please. Thanks.”)
He dropped me off at a small police precinct and gave some explanations to the officer on duty. The policeman looked at me skeptically and asked a series of questions for which I had no good answers. The oddest thing was happening, though. I was actually starting to understand him in real-time… and with fewer glances at my dictionary!
What are you doing here?
Where are you from?
Where is your passport?
Where are you staying?
When it became obvious that I was a complete idiot, he shrugged and pointed to a bench across from the drunk tank. Then he sat down at his desk and started doing paperwork. The drunks were behind a Plexiglas door and began gesturing at the lock in hopes of getting free. I slid down the bench so as not to get in any deeper trouble with the officer.
I began to replay the events of the evening in my mind. Suddenly, a combination of disbelief and hope seized me. I yanked the wallet out of my pocket. I vaguely remembered one of the Russian students handing me a “business” card during the party. It listed his profession as “Student” and included a full address and phone number.
I sheepishly walked up to the officer, handed him the card, and said, “Eto moi drug.” (“This is my friend.”) He cocked his head and looked up at me with a strange grimace. Then, he picked up the phone and called my new best friend. It was around 5am, and Alec sprang awake and rushed to my rescue. He took me back to his flat, gave me a bite to eat, and insisted I crawl into bed.
I crashed and slept safely for most of the next day.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
On a philosophical level, that night taught me a lot about myself, positive thinking, and responsibility for own my actions. That’s the obvious moral of a story like this, right? But, something more practical happened, too.
That night of struggle forced me up the Russian Language learning curve. From that point forward, I was able to at least sound out the Cyrillic on all the signs surrounding me. I may not have known the vocabulary yet, but I could read those words at a fast enough pace to be useful.
Without this experience, I’m convinced that I’d remember very few Russian words today. And I seriously doubt I’d be able to sound anything out in Cyrillic. Here, 18 years later, I’m too out of practice to be conversational for long… but I can still dredge up some passable phrases on a good day! And, if I ever moved to a Russian speaking country, I really believe I could get it back in a month or two.
So here’s my big takeaway that I hope will inspire some of you:
Challenging situations in life and in business are the best opportunities for real improvement.
Simply assume a positive future outcome and don’t give into the temptation to cower in fear.
If you stop moving and focus on the fear, you will probably get beaten up or killed. If you have faith and take action, you will likely come out the other end with a whole new set of skills, efficiencies, and competencies.
I see some companies cowering in our current economic climate. There are people freezing up who should be taking action. The real winners at the end of this recession will be the ones who seize the opportunity to boldly push through the old status quo. It will be the ones who finally consider important process change and have the courage to try new technologies and better methods.
How will this economy remake you and your company?
The decision is yours.