My Aunt Adaire told me a joke a long time ago about a group of people driving to Houston. As they went along they saw road signs: “Houston 200 miles,” “Houston 126 miles,” “Houston 50 miles.” When they saw a sign that said “Houston Left,” they turned around and went home.
There are multiple lessons in this joke for me. One is about changing social mores that make it uncomfortable for me to attache a name to this group of people (who may or may not have been on their way to agricultural college).
Another is about ambiguity in language and literalism in decoding it (which I pay a lot of attention to as a source of inspiration for writing creatively).
But maybe these people were just looking for an excuse to avoid their future. In every joke we can seek a kernel of truth.
The lesson I’m focusing on here is about reaching for excuses. It’s about dealing with speed bumps.
I just had a conversation with my friend Liz Applegate about the ways we use research to slow us down. Liz is starting a podcast, something I myself have considered doing. I asked her, “for a friend,” what resources she had used to learn what she needed to know to get started.
“I know someone who started one last year, and she’s given me a lot of helpful advice,” she said. “But I’m not afraid of technology, it’s something I can easily learn about, and I don’t want to slow myself down. The thing that scares me is putting myself out there, so I need to just keep moving forward and learn as I go or I’ll never do this.”
In other words, she was starting before she was ready.
I was at once fascinated and appalled and thwarted; I had imagined her answer would refer me to the podcasting course she’d just taken or the podcasting coach she’d signed up with, and here she was telling me she knew enough to just move forward.
Here I’d been doing what counts for me as due diligence by watching a bunch of videos from someone whose course I was considering enrolling in — and here was Liz, jumping forward with two feet. Unconcerned about making mistakes. Cool as a cucumber about moving forward without being 100% prepared.
She did not plan to get slowed down any more than necessary by speed bumps.
Me? I imagine myself looking for speed bumps. If one isn’t there, metaphorically, I might end up creating one. Instead of continuing forward, I might get out of the car, examine the speed bump for a while, and decide I should go back home and try again another day, when I’m ready.
Which would be a silly way to drive. The right thing to do, according to what I remember of driver’s ed and decades of driving experience, is to slow down enough to navigate safely over the interference and take it as a reminder that driving along this stretch of road is tricky enough that extra vigilance might be warranted.
Might be. Of course, I have experimented with how fast my car can actually take speed bumps without taking on air, and some of the time I probably just speed up again until I come to another one.
As far as speed goes, I’m one of those drivers who takes curves at the legal limit rather than the suggested speed (unless I’m in the mountains and there’s a sheer dropoff). I’ve been known to take stop signs as suggestions. When I was 17, I blew right through a 4-way stop in the middle of the night with a lookout at the bottom of a valley so I could see how far I’d go up the other side, coasting in neutral.
So my caution is selective, and when I’m selecting caution in my work life, I end up going way too slow.
What I’m seeking right now is a balance between compulsively mapping out every route and acknowledging what I already know about getting there. And coping with naturally arising speed bumps instead of trying to manufacture reasons to avoid the route.
Composition Note: Sometimes, when I’m talking through problems with a friend, or telling stories about recent experiences or trains of thought, an image pops up that I consider entirely usable. “Speed bump” was on my mind, and when Liz and I were comparing approaches, I could imagine myself pulling over to the side of the road to examine a speed bump — which I would never in real life do. This was one of those posts that comes easily, and what you’re reading here is the first draft.
Didja see my new feature? I’m experimenting with the Composition Note as a way of making my own writing process as transparent as possible so readers might find a way into their own writing. I’d love to know if there’s a nugget in there that you can apply. Comment below if you’ve discovered a new ridiculous metaphor or had a conversation that inspired you to write — or just to say hello.