When I turned 16 years old, getting my drivers permit and learning to drive a car was a rite of passage. It meant I was maturing, earning responsibility, and finally transitioning from childhood into adulthood (which, I can say now looking back, is way over rated). I insisted on taking my written permit test on the day of my sixteenth birthday. When I passed, my only motivation was to get behind the wheel. My Dad would be my primary driving instructor. Every driving lesson spent with my Mom saw her over-dramatically throw her head back, squeeze her eyes closed, and slam on an invisible brake as I approached each and every stop sign. My Dad, however, had both the confidence in me, and the poise to give me the keys to the car, help me to make decisions, watch me make mistakes, and ultimately give me the skills I needed to learn to drive solo. My Dad approached my driving lessons from a practical, and straightforward perspective. With every coaching session he reiterated very clear and simple rules of the road. These rules were not just “red means stop and green means go.” Though just as definitive and concise, they were more valuable than anything outlined in the New York State learner permit study guide.
Seventeen years ago today I started my driving lessons with my Dad. I realize now that he was not only teaching me a practical and essential life skill, he was giving me advice that has served as a foundation for navigating through all of my adult life. I still think back to his rules of the road, but each rule has more meaning for me now than it did when I was an over-eager, under-appreciative 16-year old. Today, as a still over-eager, but much more appreciative 33-year old, I realize that the lessons my Dad taught me behind the wheel are some of the most important ones I have ever learned.
Rule # 1: You can only go as fast as the car in front of you.
This rule was meant to curb my early tendencies toward tailgating. As our maroon dodge minivan would creep closer and closer to the bumper of the car in front of us, thanks to my impatient and inexperienced lead foot, my Dad would toss this rule at me and watch for my speedometer to arc back to a reasonable speed. I hated this rule. I hated cars that kept me from advancing, and from setting my own speed. They were roadblocks, literal roadblocks, and they impeded my ability to be in full control of my destiny.
Whether I liked it or not, though, he was right. On the single lane road of life, you can only go as fast as the car in front of you, because at times, at many times, we are not fully in control of our lives. We can never anticipate the roadblocks and delays that life will throw at us, and we can’t just bully them out of the way with temperamental tailgating. A wiser person knows that sometimes we have to let go of the forced desire for ubiquitous control, and must accept that there will be other people and factors that will set our speed for us, and that this reality is okay, because in the end, we’ll still make it to our final destination.
Rule #2: Make a commitment to your lane.
Bottom line on this one: temper the urge to weave in and out of traffic to constantly leap frog other cars on the road, especially at highway speeds. Every maneuver you make is a risk. If you miscalculate your lane change or fail to properly check your blind spot, you could be the cause of a serious accident. The truth is, what drives the desire to bob and weave is an underlying sense of competition. We’ve all been there. We spend an hour driving on the thruway, constantly fighting for pace car position with another driver. They pass you, and then you pass them, constantly weaving in and out of the fast lane like a reckless sewing needle. As the miles pass and the competition heats up, your lane transitions get more aggressive and you start to lose your ability to make rational and safe decisions. When you finally watch your nemesis pull off the highway and into a rest stop you find yourself releasing a maniacal laugh as you celebrate your perceived victory, but in the end, what have you actually won?
Every time my Dad told me to commit to one lane, he was reminding me to keep my focus on myself and my own goals, and not to judge my successes or my failures by those around me. Life is not a competition. When our only focus is on proving our superiority to those around us, we fail to appreciate who we are, what we have, and where we are going. By committing to our own path and avoiding the temptation to compare ourselves to others, our enemies fall away and we are left coasting.
Rule # 3: Don’t park in anyone’s trunk.
Okay, so I had a little bit of an issue following cars too closely when I was learning to drive. The good news is I no longer have that problem. The bad news is that it took getting rear-ended earlier this year to finally break the habit for good. That accident reiterated to me the importance of my Dad’s lesson. He used to apply this rule whenever I lined up at a stoplight just millimeters away from the car in front of me. Typically, I would bring our car to more of an abrupt halt than a gradual, slow stop. As our heads bumped against our head rests, my Dad would remind me not to park in anyone’s trunk.
In retrospect, there really was no reason to push the limits of safety. I know now what caused my irresponsible behavior: overconfidence. It was total overconfidence in my nascent skills and my desire to prove that I didn’t need anyone’s guidance or tutelage that caused me to edge too close to danger. I thought that I could push the limits and stay in control, which, I believed, proved my competence. I now know that it takes greater confidence to show restraint than to push barriers, that it takes more strength to exact finesse than to force change, and that it takes more courage to slowly accept the end than to fight it until the last second.
Rule # 4 Take the pull-through.
This was a rule about parking. My Dad always reinforced to me that parking lots were some of the most dangerous areas for drivers, and today I believe that anyone who has ever attempted to park at Wegmans on a Sunday afternoon would agree. Whenever we were parking in a crowded lot, my Dad would encourage me to pass over the narrow spots with cars on all sides that were close to the main entrance and instead choose a spot that allowed me to pull up and straight into the empty spot in front of it.
I would grit my teeth at this instruction, knowing that we’d have a shorter walk if he’d let me force a four point turn into that one, narrow, awkward spot near the main entrance, but the pull-through was more than just advice, it was a non-negotiable. By choosing the pull-through, he persisted, you could drive forward out into the parking lot when it was time to leave, rather than having to back-out, which was more dangerous. When backing-out, we were subject to rule 4.A, which stipulates that you should only back-up as far as you have to, in order to avoid damaging parked cars, grocery carts, or something far, far worse.
I was meant to understand that the pull-through is a strategic maneuver. It is positioning yourself to take advantage of a future opportunity. It is choosing to give something up in the short-term, to make something easier for yourself in the future. It is about conscientiously laying the foundation now, for success later on.
I can see now, that this was my Dad’s goal all along, not just with my driving lessons, but as a parent. He was giving me the perspective I needed to make decisions that would best put me in position for future success. He was teaching me essential skills to avoid the dangers of dominance, competition, and over-confidence. Instead he taught me to be disciplined without being selfish, ambitious without being cutthroat, and fearless without being reckless. Thirty-three years later the lessons I learned from my Dad behind the wheel are still guiding my choices and informing my decisions.
The last rule my Dad taught me was to always wave to say thank you to those courteous drivers who graciously yield the right of way, bestowing on you the rite of passage, and allowing you to carry on ahead. I’ve never forgotten that lesson either.