When in driving school back in Italy, we had this instructor for theory that always had good stories for scenarios and situations we'd encounter on the road. For example, he would teach us about checking the oil levels in the car, telling us what to do about low levels. Then he would call on someone, ask them to evaluate a scenario - and lo-and-behold, the levels in the new scenario were high. Now what?
The idea was that we needed to be prepared for every kind of occurrence, and be able to solve problems that came along the way. That's where I learned the story about a truck full of yogurt I'd like to tell you today.
Imagine this thick fog like the one we have that in our neck of the woods (near Modena, Italy) in the Fall. It's so thick that you can barely see in front of your toes sometimes. If you're driving, forget the toes, and try to see the road.
As you know, Italian drivers are famous for not wanting to slow down on the highway - or anywhere. It's a cultural thing but only behind the wheel. In front of a good meal with friends, we can spend hours. Back to the road.
There's this long line of cars on the highway. Each driver is following the one in front. Each going at a certain pace to not lose sight of the red lights cast by the other in front. Not too slow, yet not too fast, either - the objective is to follow, not pass. It takes incredible discipline.
Now let's go and take a look at the guy at the front of the line. His eyes are bloodshot and he's weary. He's been staring out into the fog finding a way. He's been leading the long line for a while, and he's starting to show visible signs that he's giving up. It's hard work seeing through the fog and nobody is passing him, even as he slows down.
Then there's a phenomenon. He comes out of nowhere - you can't really see way back anyway. He's a force of nature. A guy who's so smart, so clever, so together, that he sees through the fog. He doesn't need to follow the long line of cars, no Sir. He can just pass everyone at breakneck speed. So he does. You can almost see him waving, can't you?
Everyone sees him zoom past. The guy in the front, eyes wide open, sees him, too in his rear view mirror. With a sight of relief, as soon as he is surpassed, he accelerates to keep up. Now he can follow someone else. He doesn't have to lead anymore, and welcomes the respite. Off they all accelerate to keep up with the new guy in front.
Imagine now that a little while later, the guy at the front leading the pack all of a sudden slams into a truck full of yogurt that sits across the highway. Splashes of yogurt everywhere. He simply missed the wide, white structure in the fog. Everyone else slams into the car they have in front, just like a perfect domino. What a mess!
Figuratively, nothing bad happens to anyone, just lots of yogurt everywhere and car damages. It was a story, remember?
One that stayed with me for many reasons. Over the years, I've given it new meaning, depending on my context at any point in time. Our lives, too are a journey. And sometimes there is thick fog in front of us that prevents visibility. What's going on in the minds of the drivers? What do you think? My take:
1. The guy who thinks he can see through the fog is smart up until the point in the story when he hits the truck full of yogurt at top speed head on first.
2. The long line of people following the lead made me think about the many times we prefer to follow someone else's lead instead of charting our own way. That may work until we lose sight of why they changed speed or course. Afterward, there's probably a lot of splashes of yogurt going on.
3. The driver up front who makes the effort for everyone probably ends up getting what he wanted -- someone to follow, the chance to go at a different speed -- yet sans testing a dangerous proposition.
4. When everyone realizes what is happening it's already too late (to put on brakes.)
5. The truck full of yogurt was across the highway for a reason. The driver must have also been trying to get home faster, or deliver sooner. Shortcuts sometimes become the long way to a big mess.
6. Imagine each driver alone in their cars -- the others on the road as the only company. There is stuff going on in their isolated heads -- the day ending, various expectations, desires, mental computations to distract them from the task at hand, driving.
7. A thick fog makes for difficult driving conditions. When the context is tricky, we should take special measures to help us come out alright. Sometimes experience is no help. We think we remember how we navigated a turn successfully in the past, but the conditions are never quite the same -- we change over time as well.
Experience can teach us to understand and test conditions before we dive head first into something, if we let it. The driver who passes everyone at top speed is in a rush to be multiples of “clever,” but his ambition is not warranted by the circumstances. Everyone who follows falls for the confidence of another person instead of choosing personal agency because already tried and tired, especially the leader.
[image from the Top 32 entries submitted to the Rhino Awards 2007/2008]