Naked in the Desert / by John Schlichter

My flight landed in Jeddah, the largest port of the Red Sea, where I was scheduled to meet early the next morning with the mayor to begin assessing the ability of the local government to enact its strategies through billion dollar construction projects. It was the height of the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca, which is located just outside the city. I had done this trip before and was confident things would go smoothly despite the fantastic surge of people.

It helped that I carried a letter from the Saudi government that said ‘Do not detain this man.’

In previous visits, when I had been performing a similar project management maturity assessment for the Ministry of Interior, I had been escorted through customs in seconds. It turns out that part of the Ministry's purview is border control, one of the perks being VIP treatment at customs. It helped that I carried a letter from the Saudi government that said “Do not detain this man.” But this time, I had no such luck. It took five hours! And on leaving customs I learned that my luggage had been lost!

By the time I got to my hotel, it was the middle of the night, and I had nothing to wear to my meeting first thing in the morning. I might as well have been naked in the desert. But then it dawned on me that Middle Eastern cultures are nocturnal. A simple inquiry at the front desk revealed there was a market just one block from the hotel. And sure enough, it was open despite the late hour. It was worth a shot, right?

Beyond rows of wares, nestled in a back corner of that market, lo and behold there was one rack of clothes. And at the end of that one rack there was an Italian suit! And miracle of miracles, it was my size! Well, not exactly my size but, as they say, “Close enough for government work!” Just like that I was wearing a new suit and speeding off for my meeting with the mayor. What incredible luck! I swore to myself that next time I would bring a change of clothes in a carry-on bag. As a wise Arabian proverb advises, "Trust God, but tie your camel."

How many of us have found ourselves the victim of optimism bias, virtually naked in the desert as we set out upon a new project? It is easy to believe we are at lesser risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others, and this cognitive bias is quite common, trascending gender, race, age, and nationality. That's why it is good to trust one's capabilities but always better to verify you have them.