In 2001, Dan and his wife, Ioanna, welcomed my nephew Gabriel to world. I was excited to spend some time with the little guy, and my brother and sister-in-law were looking for babysitting help as they transitioned back to work. There was just one small detail to work out: the gig was in Hong Kong, where they were living at the time.

Still, I was keen to shake my reputation as the babysitter who used a butter knife to apply diaper cream. And thanks to my penny-pinching ways in university, I could afford the flight. So I bought a plane ticket and headed to the airport.

Although Gabe the Babe enjoyed barfing on me a lot, I managed to take care of him without too many incidents. And when I wasn’t looking after the kid, I was out and about, touring around the sprawling megapolis.

One afternoon, Dan returned home from work and relieved me from my nanny duties. He suggested I check out a small antique market a short walk from the apartment. Changing my T-shirt that Gabriel had once again covered in vomit, I stepped out into the oppressive heat. 

I didn’t get far. Although access to the antique market was literally across the street, getting there proved trickier than expected.

A wall of beefy men in black suits and sunglasses barred entry, their granite features and clear “I know how to kill you with my pinkie” vibe making me sweat even more. Weighing the pros and cons between getting into the market and having my arms torn off, I opted to give the scary men a wide berth.

I was disappointed by the unexpected detour but made the most of it with a visit to a nearby shrine. Unfortunately, the peace and serenity I felt inside the sacred space was quickly replaced with mild paranoia. As I exited the building, I saw that the men in black were back — and they had now cordoned off the entire street I was on.

For a fleeting moment I wondered if it was possible that I was actually a rogue government agent with amnesia, like Jason Bourne or Wolverine, and that these men were here to take me down. And as a result, I would need to brawl my way through the streets of Hong Kong like a scene from a Jackie Chan movie, using deadly martial arts I didn’t know I possessed.

Nope. Just Bill Clinton.

The former U.S. Commander-in-Chief strolled out of a side street as his black-suited security detail kept a watchful eye on the small crowd that had gathered. The official story was that the saxophone-loving American was in town for an economic forum. 

But part of me wonders if his true agenda was to disrupt my Hong Kong sightseeing plans and to get me fired from my unpaid job as a babysitter. Stymied again, I left the scene in search of an alternate route back to the apartment.

Fast-forward five years.

By this point, I had graduated university and was working for an international development charity. During the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto, my boss sent me downtown to attend some of the sessions. It was a jam-packed day.

Too jam-packed, I discovered, when I realized how late it was. If I hoped to catch my bus home, I’d need to hightail it out of there. I hurried for the nearest exit. 

Once again, however, I didn’t get far. Rounding the corner of the building, I skidded to a halt. The entire sidewalk was clogged up with a giant crowd.

With no time to spare, I considered worming my way through the sea of people. But then I noticed that the way forward was blocked off completely. By several men. Wearing black suits. Who looked like they could kill me with their pinkies. 

The conference centre doors swung open and there he was: Bill “I’ve Got the Need to Impede” Clinton. Half a decade later, the man was still out to get me.

Whether it’s a flat tire, a global pandemic or the 42nd president of the United States messing with your schedule, life has a way of throwing monkey wrenches into even the best-laid plans. That’s why being flexible is as important as being well prepared. 

That flexibility was key in my fight with cancer. The sudden aggressiveness of the leukemia forced us to change course and ramp up the chemotherapy. When my blood counts wouldn’t rebound as expected, we had to consider alternative therapies. And when we learned that none of my seven siblings were a match for my bone marrow transplant, we needed to expand our search to the wider national and international stem cell registries.

Life is full of curveballs. But the more responsive and open you are to changing directions — be it finding a back-alley shortcut in Hong Kong or taking a later bus home — the better equipped you’ll be to handle them.

Rolling with the punches

Looking for ways to improve your flexibility? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Nurture a flexible attitude — Plans change, things happen, projects get derailed. Acknowledge that setbacks are inevitable so you won’t be too discouraged when they do happen.

Be ready with a Plan B — Plan ahead so you can adapt to unexpected changes. Put away extra money to deal with unpredictable car repairs or a surprise health issue. Don’t put all your eggs in a single investment basket. Bring five ideas to the table in case the first four get nixed.

Be open — Keep an open mind. There are a hundred ways to get from A to B, so don’t be rigid about your plans. Listen to other people’s opinions, ask questions and explore your options. 

Let go — Adapting to a new reality means letting go of the past. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of nostalgia and reminiscing. But when that devolves into wallowing and fixating on how things used to be, you probably need to give your head a shake and get back to the business at hand.

Find opportunity in obstacles — Embrace change as an opportunity for growth. That big client backing out is an opportunity to introduce fresh ideas to your strategy. That broken leg is an opportunity to catch up on reading. Losing your job is an opportunity to re-evaluate your career goals. Fail your way to success by embracing snafus as learning opportunities.

Next: Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation