How to Hang In There When You Have to Wait

You’re stuck at an airport. In another country. Alone. Forced to wait 7 hours for a flight. That you might not get on.

That’s me right now. The details surrounding why I’m stuck in Athens International Airport are not nearly as important as the fact that I’m having to wait. And waiting is not something I excel at. For most of us, waiting is not what we do well.

At all.

We’re productive. Active. Moving. In a hurry. Using incomplete sentences.

We are not waiters.

Airports are filled with impatience. I’ve humored myself today watching people hovering for a power outlet like vultures searching for their next morsel, swooping down to plug in so they can leverage their wait time to catch up. Coffee lines have impatient travelers, hoping that another glare at their watch will make the queue go faster. Boarding times become pushing matches, with everyone jockeying to the front to ensure they don’t miss out on some overhead bin real estate.

I’m surrounded by discontented waiters today, and in truth, I confess I’m one of them.

What Are You Waiting For?

Chances are you’re waiting for something right now that is far more significant than the distance between you and your next flight. Perhaps you’re waiting for a promotion. Or the day when your boss gives you the credit you think is due. Or a job offer. Or for a stakeholder who is dragging their feet on a sign-off. Or the results of a medical test. Fill in the blank: you’re likely waiting for something, and it can feel like you’re stranded, alone, not sure how it will turn out.

Lewis Smedes writes, “Waiting is our destiny as creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for.” As leaders, we might give Smedes props for his prose but bristle against the belief we can’t make our hopes come to fruition. He seems to give us permission to wave the victim flag.

Which is it? Captains of our ship? Or ships being tossed by the waves?

How Much Control Do You Have?

If you dislike waiting as much as me, here’s what I recommend: start by taking a long, hard look at how much control you have over your waiting. For example, I’m flying back to the States today as a standby passenger (thanks to my wife’s flight attendant benefits), which means I only get on if there’s an open seat. My wife and kids were able to fit onto an earlier flight, but we have little control over how much room a plane will have. We can target more open flights, be at the gate early, and be extremely kind to the gate agents, but beyond that, I’m at the mercy of who shows up (or not). If you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy, you have no control at this point of what will be found. You can do some research, talk with friends, but your level of control is low.

How you think about your situation may not necessarily affect the outcome, but it can make all the difference while you wait.

Where your level of control is low, the waiting battle is fought in the mind. How you think about your situation may not necessarily affect the outcome, but it can make all the difference while you wait. I can conjure up positive thoughts about getting on today’s flight, but that’s not going to open a seat for me. But ruminating over how much of an inconvenience this is won’t help me either.

In situations of low control, there’s wisdom in the “count your blessings” idea. In my case, my whole family enjoyed a holiday in Europe for a fraction of what it would have cost us if we had to pay typical prices for flights. I’m healthy. I love my job. I’m here because my wife and I are celebrating 30 years of marriage–and I’m more in love with her today than 30 years ago. I could go on with other “blessings”, but you get the point: when control is low, watch how you think. Try to focus on the good, not because it will change your situation as much as help you during the wait.

We rarely have complete control over situations, but we often have more influence available than we realize.

Where you have more control, use all the influence you can muster. Certainly how you think matters here as well. But what actions can you take? With a promotion, you can’t decide for the boss, but you’re likely not completely without influence. You can discuss your goals, find out what’s expected, and work hard to achieve those expectations. You can seek a mentorbuild relationships, develop your skills, and keep your resume updated. We rarely have complete control over situations, but we often have more influence available than we realize.

Regardless of the level of control, waiting is often made better when we have trusted people to go through it with us. Most often, I have a better perspective on situations when I lean into my support network instead of drifting away from it. People can help us process the wait.

Take a Breath

If your wait is relatively insignificant, in the scheme of things, take a breath. I so easily stress out over situations that won’t even be remembered a day or two from now.

  • That slow driver in front of you? Instead of laying on the horn, take a breath and try to remember Wendy Moss’ admonition to always “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” The other driver is a person, not an inconvenience. (David Foster Wallace’s iconic Kenyon College commencement address offers a related thought experiment.)
  • The protracted line at the coffee shop? Maybe it’s an opportunity to strike up a conversation with someone.
  • Being stuck in an airport, being bumped from flights? Maybe it’s my chance to slow down and be present instead of in a hurry.

In these cases, maybe the blessing is the wait. Sometimes delay makes the gratification sweeter. You and I still don’t like waiting, but it might just be the opportunity we need to take a breath, get some perspective, and realize that faster isn’t always betterBusy isn’t always productive. Waiting is part of the journey.

P.S. We’re on day 5 of trying to get home, finally hitting US soil today. Little did I know when the article was first written that I would increasingly need to practice these insights!

What are you waiting for? What helps you make it through? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Andy Kaufman is an international keynote speaker, author, and host of The People and Projects Podcast, which provides interviews and insights to help leaders around the world improve their ability to lead and deliver. Learn more at or your podcast app of choice.

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