by Haim Factor
Quite a few years ago, after I met one of those helpful highway patrolmen on the road one too many times, I received an invitation in the mail to take a refresher, compulsory, driver’s improvement course. Full of disdain, I indicated the date in my day timer (this was well before the days of the smartphone). I shuddered at the thought of how I’d be able to sit through all the sessions…
The day arrived and the course started. I saw other poor souls sitting there—more or less like me. But for me, this experience was quite a shock. It was because I really was a good driver. I just didn’t belong here! What’s more, I hadn’t been to any formal driving instruction since I got my license, when I was 16 years old—many, many years ago.
What a waste of time this was going to be…
The instructor kept talking and talking. “Probably justifying his existence.”, I thought, as I doodled in the little instruction booklet I received. Then the instructor started talking about “safe following distance”. Oh no—not that! Even a freshman engineer in Physics 101 knows about accelerations, velocity, and displacements versus time! And here I was, an experienced senior engineer with a Masters degree, sitting in a Driver’s Improvement class and relearning parts of Physics 101 from the lips of no less than a Driver’s Improvement instructor.
What’s more, I really did understand the importance of keeping a safe distance. Over the years, I learned to instinctively keep a good distance between myself and the car in front of me.
Man—this course was real punishment!
Using all of my restraint and trying not to dwell on my bad fortune, I somehow made it through the lecture, just to the point when the instructor asked: “Are there any questions?” I felt my hand shoot up as my patience must have finally worn thin.
“Look”, I gasped, “I’m very familiar with safe driving distance.” Quickly reconsidering that there was no need to antagonize the instructor (who was hopefully going to give me a passing grade and was going to allow me NOT to repeat this boring course) I decided in mid-sentence to talk about what I felt rather than what I knew. Clearing my throat, I explained “What really makes me mad is that OTHER people are always on my bumper!”
That’s it. I told him how I felt! Relieved by the fact that I could tell the instructor my feelings, I slouched back in my seat and relaxed a bit. I gazed at him. He just stood there and smiled back at me. He calmly said one word:
“Excuse me?!” I asked incredulously.
“‘Don’t’, I said.” the instructor repeated.
“Don’t what!” I blurted out, beginning to get exasperated.
“Don’t get mad.” He responded, benignly.
And with that, he turned away from me to continue the lesson. I just sat there for a few seconds as he continued to talk about crosswalks-or-whatever. I tried to understand his response to me.
And then it hit me! He was right. He was VERY right! And I really hadn’t seen it at first. I didn’t have any control over the other drivers—something I knew from my years of driving experience and from a point that the instructor had somehow reinforced in his course.
I did, of course, have control over myself. Pretty simple stuff, no? But I never thought of it in this framework.
Well, some time has passed and, as you can see, I survived that course. I was actually quite happy to have learned about the word “don’t”. You see, I ended up not only being a bit calmer when I’m on the road—but also found myself applying the “don’t” lesson to other parts of my life, even when I wasn’t driving.
We very rarely have any control over others around us. That’s the frustrating and beautiful part of organizations and of our society. However, we should have control of ourselves. We should—that is, if we have our act together. I don’t mean “control” in terms of self-denial or any of a list of negative things some people do or try to do to themselves. What I mean is that all of us usually have a clear choice whether to get angry or “take something to heart”—or to let the matter pass us by. Almost every day, and throughout each day, we find ourselves confronted with actions by others—and many of those actions aren’t even too significant.
It’s our choice how we react.
Read it again. It’s our choice—not theirs. We can choose to be kind to ourselves. Or we can choose to punish ourselves for what we feel other people have (or haven’t) done to us.
Nowadays, that “other driver” who is driving too closely to me may be surprised when I slow down and just let him pass me. He probably doesn’t even know that it really wasn’t my intention to just give him a head start of at least a few milliseconds.
I actually let him pass me because I was simply being kind to myself.
I deserve it—-don’t you?
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