Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Best Advice My Father Ever Gave Me

My father wasn't much for giving advice... or maybe I wasn't good at recognizing it when I heard it. I don't know. I do know there weren't a lot of formal father to son advice sessions while I was growing up. There was probably a few incidents that provoked him into delivering advice (just as probably ignored) but I can't recall any specific instances. My dad and I didn't really hang out much. We had some shared interests which made for some great father-son interaction but didn't include any helpful direction for the future which loomed before me, no advice about life, the universe, or anything.

That is, with one notable exception.

Back in the 1970s I was anything but a normal teenager but just like the regular kids I wanted a drivers license. To realize that dream I needed to prepare for and then pass the Driver Examination test. It wasn't something I could do by myself, especially since I didn't even own a car. I had no choice, I had to ask my father if he'd teach me to drive. Dad was the only option, mom didn't drive back then. My older brother did but there was no way he was going to let me use his car to learn how to drive. Perfectly legit - he was a recent grad, one of the cool guys (a group me and my friends called "The Car Boys") he drove a 1968 Mustang Convertible. I was 2 years his junior, a pseudo-hippie glamor-punk with my eye on a '69 Austin Mini. Let me drive his car? He was understandably loathe to even have me as a passenger. Nope, dad was my only option and I remember being terrified - not that he'd say "No", just in a general sense - but I did somehow approach him with my plea.

To my surprise dad agreed to teach me how to drive. That experience could certainly make for an interesting blog or two but dad teaching me how to drive isn't what this blog entry is about. It's the advice he gave me during that teaching that this is about. The best advice he ever gave me. Advice that has not only stayed with me throughout my life but also saved my life on more than one occasion.

Actually, in a sense, this blog entry is about dad teaching me how to drive because the best advice my dad ever gave me did in fact teach me how to drive. It shaped the way I drive, influenced my driving behavior, kept me alive and unscathed more times than I can remember. It's great advice, applicable to anyone and while it might on the surface be specific to driving is actually true to most interactive human behaviors. That advice is...

"Never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver."

It is brilliant in its simplicity... Never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver. My dad repeated that phrase to me a number of times during my driving lessons, always using any or all of the other vehicle traffic as examples. These examples would invariably ask the question inherent to his original advice to never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver. The question is always the same, it's your answer that can change everything. Like the advice which leads to it the question is brilliant in its simplicity. In its shortest form the question is: "What if?"

I'd be on a driving lesson with dad and he'd point to a car poised at a cross street and say "What if that guy pulls out in front of you?" or nod toward the car in the adjacent lane and ask "What if that guy swerves into this lane?" If I questioned the likelihood of that happening or otherwise avoided answering the question dad would go back to his original advice never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver. Like, he was saying What IF that guy IS stupid enough to pull out or whatever.

Dad wouldn't leave me hanging. He'd make suggestions on how to prepare for that potential moment of stupidity from the other driver. More than anything else "What if" was the theme of my dad's driving instruction. Accomplishing the actions of driving like parallel parking, shifting gears, reversing, knowing the rules of the road wasn't enough... the act of asking "What if" would have to be mastered before my father was satisfied I was ready to take the driver exam.

It took me awhile but eventually I understood dad's underlying message was about driving defensively. It was about recognizing potential hazards and choosing the best course of action to avoid or minimize damaging consequences should they occur...

AND, most importantly, never... not for a second... absolutely NEVER underestimate your fellow human's capacity for doing the unbelievably stupid... because they will. People will change lanes on top of you, pull out in front of you, step off the curb against the light, ignore stop signs... the list of stupid things people do never ends which is why never underestimate the stupidity of the other driver is the BEST advice my dad ever gave me. (even if it did take about a decade to really sink in.)

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