Goals: Driving you forward, not up the wall

The first time I sat in the driver’s seat of a car at seventeen, I felt like I had landed on another planet.

For years of my life, I had been transported everywhere by parents and relatives without a second thought as to how they actually did it. Suddenly, the magnitude of the task was thrown into sharp focus. I gazed at every dial, switch and lever and wondered if I would even be able to make the car move, let alone drive anywhere and enjoy true freedom.

My first few lessons had me confined to a car park, simply finding the ‘biting point’ between clutch and accelerator at different gradients. There were tears of frustration as I felt that sickening judder of stalling for the umpteenth time. Then it was an industrial estate, practising low speed manoeuvres, parking and reversing around corners – kerbing frequently. Then it was more stalling on hill starts, followed by quiet night roads where I could learn to go up and down the gearbox – accompanied by the rhythmic clunk of grate covers I kept running over.

Then there were useful principles like ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’, the ‘cockpit check’ before setting off and the ‘tyres and tarmac’ rule for maintaining an appropriate distance upon stopping. These made driving more efficient and safer.

I was carefully tutored and monitored until the day of the test. Then came the pass certificate (second time, truth be told) and the golden age of independence. Those first few weeks of driving alone were like walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. Gradually, it started to become more comfortable and I grew in confidence as I started to make journeys on my own.

Fast-forward ten years and I recently drove my family around 400 miles on a weekend away without a second thought. I still come up against new road situations, unexpected incidents and risks, but now I have the experience to navigate them.

What I’ve come to realise is that achieving goals in life works much the same way as driving. Here, I hope to provide a parallel between the driving experience and goal-setting that might help us avoid some of the common frustrations we experience whilst working towards challenging goals.

Knowing the Destination

Before you step into the car, it usually helps to have a destination in mind. Otherwise you never get going or end up driving aimlessly, growing increasingly frustrated at the fact you don’t seem to be going anywhere.

I am often reminded of this exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where.”
“Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”
“So long as I get somewhere.”
“Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

If we are definite about the destination, there is only one route to worry about – the one that will get us there. Anything else is merely a distraction.

Route Planning

There are enough unexpected occurrences in life without us being negligent of good planning. A long journey takes into account rest and overnight stops, tyre pressures, fuel, oil and water levels, sufficient food and clothing, puncture repair kits and so forth. 

As we set out on our journey, we might then be met with unanticipated challenges, such as roadworks, closures, accidents, heavy traffic or adverse weather conditions. Whilst we can do little about these, frustration can be minimised by ensuring we are as prepared as possible for the things we can control.

I love Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”. How much less stressful would life be at times if we were clear on the difference and concerned ourselves only with those things we had control over?

When setting out to achieve a goal, there are things we can plan for. How many times a week will we work on the goal? Where? For how long? With whom? To what end? Life will then throw some unexpected setbacks, demands and frustrations into the mix. However, as long as we keep a clear view of the whole route and where we are trying to go, we will experience less frustration as we take control of the things we can and accept when we can’t.

The Vehicle

It helps if you know your car well. Some cars have levers and switches in different places. Each has a different biting point, different gear ratios, different fuel types. We need to know how best to prepare our vehicles for the journey and how to maintain them so they don’t burn out.

Your mind and your body are the vehicles of your life journey. Look after them; maintain them. You only get one of each.

Your car needs a careful balance of fluids to function correctly; oils, water and fuel. Similarly, our bodies are delicate machines that need specific foods, exercises and sleep patterns to perform at optimum levels. As you get to know your own body better, it will make you aware of its needs.

There are a variety of substances that can be addictive, even destructive, to the mind and body. They will undermine your capacity to achieve your goals. They can plague the body and numb the mind to inspiration. During stressful situations, establishing a calming routine allows us to manage stress effectively and resist damaging our relationships with others.

Whatever form it takes, proper maintenance will lead to increased efficiency, resilience and longevity.

The Journey

Writing in an American newspaper in 1973, Jenkins Lloyd Jones wrote:

 “Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.

“[The fact is] most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. …

“Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.

“The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride” (“Big Rock Candy Mountains,” Deseret News, 12 June 1973, A4).

Life will be like this. Sometimes you’ll be sailing along an open road, roof down, sun on your face and the wind in your hair. Other times, you’ll be at the side of the road, completely broken down. The car might not be fully functioning, either. You might find yourself with a puncture or hissing and steam from under the bonnet. Then it starts raining, whilst you stand there in shorts and a t-shirt with the roof still down. And it won’t close. Then a car drives through a large puddle and soaks you.

You’ll cry. You’ll kick the car and curse the day you bought it. You’ll forget how far you’ve come on the journey and you’ll lose sight of where you’re going.

All storms are temporary, though. I heard another saying once: “First it hurts – then it makes you stronger”. The sun will break, the clouds will pass and you will make the repairs and continue your journey, wiser and better educated for having weathered the storm.

You must also be careful never to let anyone else touch the steering wheel. You decide where the car goes; nobody else. However attractive they might make it look, do not allow anyone to persuade you to take you down a side-road or, even worse, sit in the driver’s seat. Your car is yours – keep it that way. Don’t let anyone else change your course or control the vehicle. Keep them firmly in the passenger seat or, if necessary, pull over and tell them to get out.

The further you travel, the more experienced you get. You’ll know the car better. You’ll anticipate hazards on the road ahead and plan for them. You’ll respond more quickly and become frustrated less easily. You might even laugh a little.

Heaven forbid, you might even start to enjoy the journey – don’t let too many people see, though, or they’ll think you’ve gone completely mad.

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