I am getting into the back seat of a yellow cab, as I've done a thousand times before, having just tipped the too-smiling bellboy too much for holding open the door and inviting me, as he had been trained to do just last week, to "have a nice day."
Here, 1,500 miles from home, at 6:30 a.m. in front of yet another nameless business hotel, I settle into position, careful not to spill my coffee on my free copy of USA Today.
In 20 minutes, I will be arriving at the international headquarters of General Mills, creators of Cheerios, Wheaties, and the totally fictional '50s icon of American motherhood, Betty Crocker.
My mission? To help their product development team come up with a new $250 million dollar salty snack food.
It's too dark to read and I'm too caffeinated to nap, so I glance at the dashboard and see a fuzzy photo of my driver, his last name next to it -- an extremely long and unpronounceable last name -- as if a crazed bingo master had thrown all the letters of the alphabet into a brown paper bag, shook, and randomly pulled them out in between shots of cheap tequila.
Where he was from I had no clue.
"Hello," I manage to say, nervous that my driver with the long last name would end up getting us completely lost. "I'm on my way to General Mills. Do you... know where that is?"
"Oh yes," my driver replies with an accent I assume to be Middle Eastern. "I know."
Small talk out of the way, I now had three choices -- the same three choices I have every time I get into the back seat of a cab.
I could check my email. I could review my agenda. Or I could continue the conversation with my driver -- always a risky proposition, especially with cabbies from foreign lands who were often difficult to understand, tired, or, seemingly angry at Americans, which, I am not proud to say, often led me to become way too polite, overcompensating for who knows how many years of my government's pre-emptive strikes -- a response, I'm sure (mine, not the government's), which even the least sophisticated cab driver could see through in a heart beat.
"Where are you from?" my driver asks.
"Woodstock," I reply. "Woodstock, New York. And you?"
Deep as we were in the middle of that war, I am stunned, my own backseat brand of battlefield fatigue now gathering itself for the appropriate response.
"Afghanistan?" I reply. "What brought you here?"
I could tell by his pause -- his long, pregnant pause, that things, in this taxi, were just about to change.
"Well..." my driver says, looking at me in the rearview mirror, "I was out for a walk with my 10-year old daughter when she stepped on a land mine."
I look out the window. Starbucks. McDonald's. Pier 1 Imports.
"So I ripped off my shirt and tied it around her leg to stop the bleeding. Then I went running for a doctor. But there was no doctor."
For the next 20 minutes, he goes on to tell me about his three-day journey through the mountains of Afghanistan, his bleeding daughter on his back, slipping in and out of consciousness.
Villagers took them in, gave them food, applied centuries worth of home remedies, but no one knew of a doctor.
And then... a break. A man on horseback told him of some nurses from the Mayo Clinic who had just set up an outpost just a little way up the road.
With his last bit of energy, he got there and collapsed -- the nurses managing to keep his daughter alive and flying her, the next day, to the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where, three days later, he and his wife were flown to be by her side to enter into a year long rehabilitation process with her, so she could learn to walk with her new prosthetic leg.
"That will be $27.55" my driver announces, checking the meter.
Somehow, I find my wallet, pay, and hug my driver, lingering with him as long as I could in that early morning light.
I enter the well-appointed lobby of General Mills, get my security pass, and make my way to the room where I am supposed to set things up for today's salty snack food brainstorming session.
An hour later, fifteen 30-somethings walk in, checking Blackberries.
I have a choice to make.
Do I dismiss my journey from hotel to headquarters as a surreal preamble to the day -- one that has nothing to do with the work at hand? Or do I realize that my journey here this morning is the work at hand -- a story not only for me, but for everyone in the room that day?
MItch Ditkoff, the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, an innovation consultancy and training company headquartered in Woodstock, NY. He is also the author of the very popular blog, The Heart of Innovation.
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