What Do You Do When There’s Nothing to Do?

Note: I wrote this in early August

The woman at the registration table thinks I’m going to kidnap someone else’s child. If she knew how hard it is for me to get my own kids to follow me, she wouldn’t be suspicious. However, her job isn’t to read my mind. It’s to protect the kids at summer camp from people doing strange things or, as in my case, asking unusual questions.

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Curiosity can get you into trouble.

Bird up high

Denied entry

It all started two days ago. After finishing my work day, I drove to camp to pick up my older son. The man at the registration table looked down at a sheet of paper and said, “Sorry, you’re not on the approved list.” Many parents would get frustrated or angry to hear such news. I was excited. It meant that this camp was strict about the security rules—my kind of camp.

“No problem,” I said. “I’m listed as an emergency contact. Let me show you my driver’s license.” I pulled it out of my wallet and placed it on the table.

“Sorry, we can’t do that. You’re still not on the approved list.”

“No problem,” I said, trying to hide my excitement. Wow, this place is rock solid about security. “So,” I continued, “Where does that leave us?”

“Well, you are indeed listed as an emergency contact. So let me call that number. If you answer, then I’ll know that you are you.”

Huh? I thought to myself. Why is holding the right phone better proof than a driver’s license with the correct name and photograph?  

My excitement had shifted into concern. Maybe this camp isn’t so smart about security after all. Clearly, it was time for me to put these people to the test.

“Look,” I said. “Why don’t you ask my son to pick out his father. I’ll turn my head in the other direction so he has to search hard. If he picks me, then you’ll know you’ve got the right guy.”

No answer. The guy was walking away, presumably in search of a phone. Hard to know if he even heard me.

I picked up my cell and clicked on the ringer. Waited for his call. A minute passed. Nothing. Maybe he realized my identity test is more valid than his. Then he appeared across the room, walking over to my son. As promised, I turned around and looked in the opposite direction. Since I was wearing my signature Fedora, I figured it would be seconds before my son recognized me and shouted with delight, “Dadda!”

A minute passed. No “Dadda!” Finally, the guy showed up with my son in hand. “Here he is!”

I stood for a moment, puzzled. He’s just going to let me walk away with the boy?

Most parents would think nothing of this. But not me. As I drove my son home, I started thinking of ways I could further test the robustness of the camp’s security.

Inside, but suspect

Thanks to my wife, my name is now on the list of approved pickup people. Phew. Unfortunately, my son isn’t interested in leaving. Just because I made it in doesn’t mean he wants to make it out. He’s in a circle with three other kids and a camp counselor playing a game. He’s entranced. No matter what I do, I can’t get his attention. Even when I send his little brother over to hug him, he doesn’t look up.

What do you do when you have nothing else to do? I walk up to people and ask questions.

The woman at the registration table doesn’t seem busy. “Excuse me,” I say, “Can I ask you a question.”

She’s one of those smiley happy people that you want your kid to be around at summer camp. “Absolutely!”

“This may sound like a strange question, but I was just wondering. The other day I had trouble getting in here because my name wasn’t on the list. My wife added it, so today we’re good. But I was wondering: how do you guys know that when I walk out of here, the kid I’m walking out with is my son? I didn’t see anybody check two days ago. What would keep me from walking out with someone else?”

“We watch,” she replies.

Nobody was watching two days ago, I think to myself. And didn’t she hear me just say this?

“So you’re watching closely to see that people are with someone who looks like their kid. How many kids come to this camp every day? A hundred?”

“We get three hundred kids every day.”

“That’s a lot of people to watch. Have you ever considered making sure that kids leave with the right person? It’s not just about being the right person walking in.”

From the look on her face, it’s clear that I’ve crossed a line. Although I think I’m asking helpful hypothetical questions, she is started to get creeped out.

And confused.

“We can’t let you in without making sure you’re on the list. We just can’t do that.”

I’m sorry, I haven’t been very clear. I’m totally for checking people in. How about checking them out? It’s just like Google two-step verification.”

I feel so proud of myself for offering an analogy that will clear things up. Instead, it only makes her more confused—and suspicious.

She pulls over a coworker and whispers something in her ear. The coworker looks at me with that look—you know, the one you give someone who is hiding something from you. It’s not a look of admiration.

Great. I think to myself. First I couldn’t get in the door. Now I’m inside and I’m a suspect.

I finally shut my mouth. Good call. I do need to get out of here and make dinner for my sons.

Three lessons for leadership

  1. Pay attention to what you do when there is nothing to do. Do you ask strange questions to people you don’t know? Probably not. That’s my weirdness. Yours may be different. Do you obsessively check email on your smart phone? If so, what’s behind that? Do you impatiently push people to move ahead? That’s a popular one. Do you think about all the things you just screwed up—or the stupid actions of others? That fills the time. Do you relax because finally you have a moment to yourself away from all of those irritating people? Or do you feel so uncomfortable with standing still that you reach out to someone—anyone—to connect with? Do you pick up a book? Or look for something to eat?
  2. Notice the impact of these actions on others. If there are people around, you are having an impact on them. What’s the impact? Are you creating more trust, joy, and freedom in the world? Or, like me with the registration table woman, are you creating less?
  3. Expand your repertoire. The people I know who are both successful and mature have the same bad habits they’ve always had. Just like the rest of us. What’s different is that these behaviors are less habitual and less common. That’s because they’ve developed a broad repertoire of responses to the same situation. While waiting for their child to leave summer camp, they don’t always ask bizarre questions to the person at the registration table. Sometimes they play games with their other child. Other times they quietly watch what’s happening in the room. Still other times they strike up a friendly conversation with a camp counselor. Same situation, but five or ten different possible responses.

What will you do the next time there’s nothing to do?