Well into my career in the U.S. Navy, I received an unexpected and not especially welcome order. It involved an overnight flight from my base in Europe to Washington, D.C., where I needed to deliver a morning briefing to a roomful of senior officials. Then I would head back to the airport immediately to jump on another plane for the return trip to Italy. I didn’t get much time with my family anyway, and this journey was only adding to the problem.

The briefing that morning went well, but it did little to improve my spirits as I boarded the return flight. Worn out and feeling sorry for myself, I settled into my seat. Within a minute or two, a flight attendant approached. She wanted to know if I would swap seats with another passenger, ...

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