The unclearly marked path

When we were on vacation a few weeks ago, I was driving to our downtown Seattle hotel.  City driving can be stressful, especially when it is a city that isn’t really familiar.  The maze of one-way streets, lanes crowded with cars (both moving and parked), and places that are not clearly marked certainly added up to stress for me.  We knew that valet parking was the only option before we arrived, so we were expecting it.

What we weren’t expecting was the signage for valet parking.  As we pulled up, there was a giant arrow painted on the wall of the parking garage entrance.  “Valet parking” it read, I started to pull in.  I very quickly realized that this couldn’t be the expected route.  The road ramped down very quickly and there was practically nowhere to park.  On top of that, the arrows for lane direction were pointing the wrong way.

A friendly valet, who I believe was used to this occurrence, trotted over to us and instructed us to just park. We got our luggage out and I handed him the key in exchange for the ticket.  As we started walking toward the hotel entrance, we could see the small sign on the curb that said “Valet parking here”.  The line of cars that was parked on the street wasn’t parking after all.  It was the valet parking line.

There are many things I could have done better.  I thought it seemed odd that they would have us pull in like that.  I rationalized it as strange city stuff and pulled on in.  I probably should have circled the block instead.  The hotel also could have made it more obvious where to go.  In either case, it would have helped me avoid the embarrassment of the situation.  In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t really a big deal.  No one was hurt (except my pride maybe a little) and it was over when we left the car.  

We often have to make split second decisions with imperfect information.  The smaller we can make the decision, the more likely we are to be able to avoid lasting harm.  In IT, we have a concept called Agile, which is based on breaking the work down to its smallest units, then iterating on it.  This allows us to try things and change our approach if we see that it isn’t working.  It’s a flexible way to organize work.  It also helps avoid a big mistake.  Big projects have a much higher chance of failure after long development cycles than the risk attached to smaller efforts.  Those are career-altering failures for many people.

Sometimes, we have to take the unclearly marked path. When we do, the best we can do is just try not to fall down, or wreck the car, and get to where it makes more sense. Sometimes we have to change direction to get there. By being flexible and not making things too personal, we can survive the experience and learn from it. In the end, that seems like the ideal outcome. So the next time you take a wrong turn, learn from it, file it away, forgive yourself, and move on. Most likely, you’re the one that will remember anyway.

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