Drive to Survive

My 16-year-old son, Evan, is learning how to drive a car.

But wait, it gets worse. Not only is he learning how to drive a car, the car he is learning how to drive sometimes has me in it. And that’s the scary part.

The problem, I’ve come to understand, is that in comparison to most other learning experiences, driving has two somewhat unusual characteristics:

  1. Driving happens in real time. If I’m teaching you how to tie a bowtie or play the bassoon or shave a cat (not that I have experience in any of these areas), we can stop, review, go back, etc., whenever we want. There’s no need to “do the entire thing” yourself from start to finish, until you feel ready.

    With driving, on the other hand, the only way to actually learn it is to actually do it (for real). And once you’re in the terrifying middle of it, you need to end the experience successfully before you can stop paying attention.

  1. Driving is undeniably dangerous. None of the examples above can actually kill you (other than maybe shaving a cat), a welcome truth that takes most of the edge off of the learning experience. It’s not like the novice bassoon player has to worry that if he accidentally hits the wrong note, not only will he die, he’ll also kill his well-meaning instructor in the process.

    In “driving school,” by contrast, you’re never more than a step or two away from potential disaster.

And so needless to say, we’ve had our fair share of “tense” father-son moments.

One such moment occurred about a week ago, as Evan was driving on a local highway. It was two lanes in either direction and Evan was in the right lane. As we approached one of the on-ramps, a fast-moving truck was trying to get on the highway.

The truck kept going. Evan kept going. Truck… Evan… truck… Evan… You get the picture. I’m no physicist, but it was clear that before long, the two vehicles would be occupying the same time and space.

Luckily, my ever-alert wife, Linda, had the presence of mind from the backseat to yell, “Evan, slow down and let him in!”, something which Evan thankfully did. (In my defense, I was too busy watching my life flash before my eyes to make any meaningful contribution.)

A few minutes later, when we asked Evan why he didn’t let the truck in to begin with, he said, “I had the right of way.”

He was correct, of course. Even so, the incident did prompt me to come up with the following important driving insight: Don’t have any children. Knowing the rules doesn’t necessarily make you a good driver.

The fact is, Evan has sat in driving class much more recently than either you or I, and he is considerably more familiar than we are with the actual rules and regulations governing the operation of a motor vehicle in the state of Massachusetts. And yet despite all this factual knowledge, you and I are still better drivers.

Interestingly, the same could be said about being an effective business writer.

What I mean is that while written communication also has a number of “rules of the road,” I’m not sure how strong the correlation is between technical writing skills and engaging communication. Sure, you need to know some basics, but there are plenty of skilled editors and proofreaders who, while clear on the correct usage of a semicolon, couldn’t write an engaging paragraph of text if you held a loaded bassoon to their heads.

That’s important. It’s important because it means that if what’s keeping you from writing an E-Newsletter (or whatever else) is a concern over your “lack of writing skills,” you may be needlessly worried about a problem that doesn’t really exist – if you can communicate in “real life” you can write a good newsletter.

Towards that end, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Write the way you talk. I am continually amazed by how many funny, friendly, interesting people I know whose business writing reads like it was strained through a stack of used PhD dissertations. Try speaking the words out loud as you write until you get comfortable with using a conversational voice.
  1. Ignore the rules whenever you want. Even if you’re familiar with the official rules of writing, it doesn’t mean you have to follow them.

    Look at today’s newsletter… there are way more paragraph breaks than you’re supposed to have. I don’t care – I know it’s easier for you to read if I have lots of short ones.

    And how about this? Starting a sentence with the word “And” isn’t allowed, but I did it anyway. And look, I just did it again.

    So what? Your goal is communication, not rule-following. So focus on communicating.

  1. Keep it all in perspective. I’ve never met anyone who refused to talk out of a concern for improper language usage. And yet I run into people all the time who confess that what keeps them from publishing a newsletter is a fear of “bad writing.”

    Don’t worry about it. Your business has more to lose by your being invisible than it does by your possible, overuse, of, commas. Chances are, your high school English teacher isn’t subscribed to your newsletter anyway.

Here’s the bottom line. Good writing is like good driving: The point isn’t to follow the rules, the point is to get to where you want to go safely. And while that are certainly some basics worth following in that regard, experienced drivers – and writers – know that being right is not the same thing as being effective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *