Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher, unknowingly described the life of the business traveler several centuries in advance: brutish, poor and short. Long hours, inconsistent diet and exercise and extended periods of emotional isolation virtually assure that many will burn out. This state of affairs is at its worst on Mondays, quite possibly the most miserable day of the week for the road-dwelling professional.
Depending on your proximity to the airport and destination, your day can start as early as 3:30 AM. The alarm clock assaults your eardrums (and your spouse’s, unfortunately), prompting you to slog over to the shower – you can’t clean up at your destination, since you may be heading straight to the office. After a quick goodbye to a half-awake, fully annoyed companion, you trudge down to the waiting town car (if the driver’s late … no mercy), while doing the mental calculations on whether 45 minutes of fitful sleep during the ride is preferable to trying to wake up. It doesn’t matter, as you’ll resign yourself to a general feeling of hard-to-describe discomfort.
At the airport, having checked in the night before and printed your boarding pass, you run the security gauntlet, easily spotting the passengers who are not members of your elite, informal fraternity. You kick off your shoes, whip out your laptop and empty your pockets, as if the seconds you’ll save are a matter of life and death, knowing deep down that this behavior is totally irrelevant.
Coffee comes next, of course, since you know you’ll need to spend the flight preparing for your weekly client meeting, which is invariably scheduled for as soon as you plug in at the office. While you loiter at the gate, nursing caffeine into your body, you snag a wi-fi connection and look around while you pull down your e-mail and look for any early morning or overnight crises. The seats are littered with people clad in business casual attire and up, depending on the nature of their companies, clients and engagements. You look for familiar faces, if only to size up the competition for upgrades. New faces are a plus, as it means the odds of a seat up front usually improve.
Thanks to your status as a wandering hired gun, you pre-board per the code on your boarding pass that indicates you’re among the airline’s chosen, perhaps into the coveted first class cabin. You score some extra legroom and a drink while the proletarians board – as long as the flight attendant isn’t jabbering mindlessly at a passenger who would rather have his coffee with cream, sugar and no commentary. This happens all too often, unfortunately. If you weren’t relying on an upgrade and actually paid for a first class ticket – fat chance of that ever happening unless you’re a top-shelf executive – you’d book 1C, so at least you’d get your coffee before the flight attendant gets distracted, starts talking and fails to serve the rest of the cabin.
In the sky, you try to make yourself “billable” (depending on the nature of your job), throwing yourself into client work with the hope that you’ll recapture an hour or two at the end of your day … though that really never happens. So, you spend a few hours on status reports, presentations and writing e-mails that you’ll send later, occasionally breaking to eat, drink or nap.
When you hit the ground at your final destination, sometimes eight hours after having been greeted by your alarm clock, you’re about to start a workday won’t end until you leave for the obligatory team or client dinner, usually at around 7 PM. If you’re deep into a project, it could be worse – desktop dining while slaving away until well past midnight. If dinner’s on the agenda, you shoot to get back to your hotel room by around 11:30 PM (hopefully, you got to check in before going to the office). The bed looks great, but you need to check up on e-mails that were kicked around while you were at the dinner table and couldn’t sneak a look at your Blackberry. Then, you take care of some client work and call it quits sometimes between 1 AM and 2 AM. You’ve been up for 22 hours or loner.
It’s a tough life – and by now, I’m sure, one that sounds hardly worth living. Fortunately, there are some perks. Personal expenses stay low, and you do get to eat at some fantastic restaurants. Occasionally, you can squeeze in some time to enjoy your destination (if it’s worth enjoying, that is). For many, the work itself is a big draw, especially if you’re with one of the prestigious law firms, investment banks, accounting companies or consulting outfits. You’ll get projects that you’d never see anywhere else, work with some of the smartest people in the business world and be compensated rather well (though you’d never admit it). But, life on the road can take its toll on you. After a while, you’ll answer the “How are you?” question as one of my former bosses once did: “any day you’re not on a plane is a good one.”