Target Fixation: License to Drive

I got my driver’s license at the age of 33.

That’s one of those bits of information about myself that I tend to hold onto for those “ice breaker” moments at meetings when you are asked to share your name, role and “something nobody would know about you”. It’s innocuous, it’s mildly interesting, and it’s a bit unusual, so it works well in those settings and has stood me in good stead more than once.

One of the things I don’t always share in those moments is that I also took Driver’s Education – for the second time in my life – at the age of 33. Having done it before at the age of 15, but never following through with that whole pesky “getting a license” business, I thought it was wise to do a refresher course in driving with the driving instructor in the very small town I lived in at that time.

My driving instructor was undoubtedly more accustomed to younger pupils. He had abundant patience though, and lessons were going fairly well until one day, for about the fifth time, I found myself veering towards a large wooden bear-proof garbage bin while he yelled “brake, brake” before I could smash it into matchsticks.

There we were, stopped just shy of a garbage bin, when he mopped his brow and glared at me with frustration, the first time I had seen that expression on his face.

“Do you know what your problem is?”, he finally asked. “You don’t look where you want to go.”

I spluttered indignantly for a moment, astonished at this revelation. Of course I was looking where I wanted to go. The fact that I was steering towards the garbage bin (again) was just a freak coincidence, not evidence that I was in some way distracted or worse, looking at that garbage bin and allowing it to become my focal point.

He listened to my attempts at defense, and then said: “The truth, Theresa, is that you will steer towards what you are looking at. If it’s straight ahead, you will go straight. If it’s to the side, you will veer that way. And if it is towards a garbage bin, then you will head right for it.”

Look where you want to go.

It’s called “target fixation”, an actual phenomenon in which we will steer towards what we look at, and it took me until I was 33 and learning to drive to truly understand it.

A few weeks later, both to his intense relief and mine, I passed my driving test, without once hitting a garbage bin and having learned a powerful lesson about driving.

The reality, of course, is that my driving instuctor had given me good advice on both steering my car, and steering my life.

Perhaps this year, during times of challenge and uncertainty, this thoughtful advice has given me more direction than ever before. And I think it is sound advice not only for us as individuals, but for organizations, governments and communities.

Where do you want to go? Do you want to live in the past, enmeshed by the events of the last few months, or do you want to move into the future? Do you want to spend precious time breaking down the could-haves, should-haves, would-haves and rolling them around in your head, or do you want to explore what the future could hold?

It is your choice, and yours alone. And where you look will undoubtedly direct where you will go.

If you look into the past, there is a terrible chance you will end up mired there, unable to move ahead. If you allow yourself to be distracted by the endless side shows that exist in our world, the incessant “hey-lookit-me’s” then you will find yourself headed towards them and steering off your path.

But if you truly want to steer into the future – to move on and to move ahead – then you must focus on it, and look to where you want to go.

It’s a pretty simple concept, but it’s one we quickly forget when it comes to our lives, even if we practice it daily when we drive. We find ourselves looking in directions we don’t really want to go, and almost against our will we find ourselves steering towards them, not even understanding why we are heading that way.

And it is because we have chosen to look in their direction, into the past behind us or the dead-ends or the paths meandering far away from where we actually want to be. It is normal and it is natural and it happens to all of us from time to time, because we forget that in the end, 100 percent of the time, we will steer towards the direction we look.

Life goals, employment goals, community goals; all of these can be attained by simply holding fast to our course and looking towards them. As soon as we look towards the garbage bins of hopelessness, negativity, anger, frustration and despair, we will head right for them.

If we are lucky, we hit the brake before we hit them. If we are not, we collide with them, and the trick becomes steering our way out of them.

I wonder if my driving instructor ever realized that those words, meant to help a 33-year old woman finally get a driver’s license, held far more significance than simple driving advice.

It was sound advice for driving a car – and a life. And it’s sound advice as we move from a year of challenges into another year that will undoubtedly hold new challenges, too. If we continue to look where we want to go, we will steer towards it and one day find ourselves at the destination we have chosen.

Or we can end up in the garbage bins, surrounded by a place we didn’t want to go and unsure how we ended up there in the first place.

The choice is ours. You hold the driver’s license.

Now look where you want to go. 

And hit the gas.

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