On Thursday of our cruise week, we were anchored in the harbor of Santa Cruz, one of five populated islands in the chain. After chasing Darwin finches and hanging out with giant tortoises during the day, we were entertained onboard ship that evening by a local Galapagon band and native Ecuadorian dancers, a special treat. After about an hour of singing and dancing, it was time for dinner, and I found myself the first one downstairs in the dining room. Steve, our friendly, spic-and-span steward, stood patiently behind the serving line, waiting for my fellow guests to arrive.
“We’re going to be a little late tonight, Steve,” I said. “Some of us are still upstairs dancing.”
Steve looked at me, smiled, and came as close to rolling his eyes as a professional steward on board a cruise ship ever dares. “I know,” he said. “It happens every Thursday night.”
That’s when it struck me: One person’s once-in-a-lifetime experience is another person’s cookie-cutter Thursday night. In fact, our entire cruise to the Galapagos was actually the practiced craft of a team of trained professionals offering a series of carefully tested, cookie-cutter processes that insured guests were safe, sound, and on schedule as their once-in-a-lifetime experiences unfolded.
There was room in this choreography for a penguin to spontaneously peck a camera lens, for example, but little chance for a hammerhead to eat a snorkeling amateur photographer.
I’d had a similar sensation eighteen month before when I saw Hamilton, maybe the single best thing I have seen, ever, anywhere, and certainly another once-in-a-lifetime experience. But I remembered leaving the Richard Rogers Theater that afternoon wondering how the cast of the show could manage to deliver eight, once-in-a-lifetime performances every week, week after week. It turns out to be talent, for sure, but talent relying on process. Eat right, sleep enough, exercise often. Lots of water. And practice, practice, practice. One Broadway actor refers to it as a “monastic existence. We don’t do much other than the show.”
This reliance on process to deliver once-in-a-lifetime experiences is the stuff that makes Disney successful, ensuring the next Mickey Mouse appears right on schedule from behind a hidden door to delight your child.
Want to climb Mount Everest? Admittedly, you’ll have to be in good shape, and it’s wise to have some real climbing experience, but for $200,000, you can purchase a vetted process that will include meals, Sherpas, bandwidth to Skype as you summit, and oxygen bottles stashed along your route.
There are, of course, truly unscripted, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Imagine taking off with Captain Chesley Sullenberger on US Airways 1549 from LaGuardia on the morning of January 15, 2009, only to find yourself alive and safely-landed in the Hudson River. Luck? Yes. Process? Certainly. Sullenberger said he’d been making regular deposits in the bank of “experience, education and training,” and suddenly found he needed to “make a very large withdrawal.”
It might not be an overstatement to say that the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that are truly unscripted and devoid of process are often the kind we don’t live to talk about.
We find instead an odd, counter-intuitive equation: the more unbelievable a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the more likely there is to be a rigorous, disciplined process making it possible.
This Thursday evening, as I’m undoubtedly watching the snow fall around my New England home and wondering how many more times this winter I’ll lose power, I know that some group of slightly toasted, smiling guests on a ship in the Galapagos is being dazzled by Ecuadorian song and dance.
Meanwhile, Steve will be standing downstairs in the dining room, checking his watch and wondering if the arroz marinero will be too cold to serve by the time his guests arrive.