Escaping the elderly

Ever been trapped in a room full of old people? You must have tried to escape. I was once in this situation, but physically could not escape. The door was locked, the key hidden, and the windows bolted shut.

I’ve done escape rooms in Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, LA, Irvine, and Boston. Last summer in San Francisco, my roommate Rachel and I booked an escape.

The building itself was tucked under a freeway overpass and hard to find. Mysterious and grungy—A good sign for this sort of thing.

The quirky “gamemaster” (as he called himself) greeted Rachel and I and told us to make name tags. I was “Chuck” and Rachel was “Cosmic Warlord.” (We later realized we missed a golden opportunity to pick really funny names, and brainstormed better ones on the train ride home).

The gamemaster told us that nine other people would be escaping with us. Minutes later, a poppin’ limo pulled up with music blaring. The door opened and disco strobe light spilled onto the street. From the limo, emerged nine senior citizens.

A bridge club from Brentwood. 

Tipsy off the limo’s refreshments, they wore matching shirts celebrating “Maude’s 75th!” They made themselves nametags: “Sherry Berry”, “Peaches”, “Wonder Woman”, “Girl”, “Mom”, “KTB”, “Davey Wavey.” A large, quiet, Navy SEAL-type baby boomer named himself “Princess”. My favorite was this one woman; she could’ve chosen any name and she chose “Mabel.” I love you, Mabel.

The gamemaster started the clock and locked us in the room. Game on.  

I reverted to my battle-tested protocol, working methodically, efficiently, quickly. The older folks, on the other hand, went nuts. They yelled and scrambled, fiddling frustratedly with each puzzle. Peaches wanted air conditioning.  Davey Wavey lost his wallet. It was chaos.

I faced an ethical fork in the road. Should I take a domineering leadership role, ignore the seniors, and solve everything myself? Escaping was our goal, after all. If I took control, we’d succeed.

But what about Maude? Would she spend her big day waiting around as some punk kid stole her thunder? Was success worth excluding these quirky old-timers? No. Our stated goal was escaping, but more importantly—fun. Good leaders do not seek victory at all costs. They help everyone show up, contribute, and learn.

I opted not to dictate, but to delegate. The seniors eagerly agreed, wanting to contribute. I had Sherry Berry, a former teacher, decode anagrams. Princess the mechanic started retooling a cryptex. Girl the accountant worked a number puzzle. I gave Mabel a blacklight to scan for invisible ink.

They worked with ardor, imbued with new confidence. Still, the plodding seniors were no Sherlocks. We had too much fun to notice. Every small victory was high-fived.

The alarm screamed. We didn’t escape the room. But I escaped my narrow definition of leadership. It’s not about winning. Despite our comic ineffectiveness, my new friends and I all contributed. Leadership is about giving Maude a great 75th birthday.


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