04 September 2014

When I was 18 years old, I started taking driving lessons. I practiced on an old Opel Astra, that was running on propane instead of normal gas, to save money. On my first lesson, we spent a large portion of the time going over the different tools and instruments available in the car. We covered many things at once. How to turn the signals, which pedal is the throttle, the break, and the clutch, how to use them to switch gears, how to turn lights on/off, how to see the amount of gas available, how to turn the radio on/off.

The first few lessons I spent by thinking mostly about how to switch gears so that the car would go smoothly and not choke up. I didn’t pay full attention to all the traffic signs and all the pedestrians crossing in front of me. I had an instructor next to me who made sure I don’t crash into objects or people. Because of that I was able to devote more time to learning how to operate the controls of the car, how to switch gear smoothly, accelerate and decelerate.

I became OK with controlling the car, but I wasn’t great. I was also far from great on my situational awareness - I hadn’t practiced enough looking in perspective, with foresight about the traffic conditions, so I ended up being very reactive to the world around me, instead of being proactive about avoiding collisions, avoiding slowness and observing the traffic rules.

Later, after I got my driver’s license, I learned to be better on these aspects of driving, I learned to look further away in distance, to anticipate cars switching lanes and to precisely control which path I took among the different lanes in order to get to my destination faster. It took a lot of practice. As I was starting to my driving career I was bad at all of these and I was probably a pretty bad and dangerous driver. I should have learned these essential skills better before I got my license. Luckily, I avoided traffic accidents, but I’ve been thinking about how much better of a driver I would have been if I had learned to drive on automatic car.

If I were to learn on an automatic car, I would have one less task in front of me. I would have focused more on how the car behaves in relation to the other cars on the road, to pedestrians, and traffic signs. Once capable enough to decide and execute on the right behavior for the car, I could optionally start learning how to control the manual aspect of shifting gears, and how to keep a smooth ride, accelerating and decelerating.

An year ago, I was in Italy, and the rental car I had rented stopped working. I had to call the representative of the company, who barely spoke English, and my Italian was even way worse, and I had to explain that I have already rented a car from a different city, the car doesn’t work, I need a new car and so on. The connection wasn’t always great so I had to call multiple times, and I had to start my explanation from scratch. If I tried to say my situation and all my problems at once, the person on the other side of the phone got really confused. So, I started saying one thing at a time, wait for the acknowledgement from that person, that have understood. They often repeated their understanding which made it easier to move the conversation.

Breaking up the any communication would simplify the process and focus on what is really important. Not only that, it would lead to a more solid transfer of information. For example, I’ve seen how breaking up teaching into few small lessons makes it easier for the teacher and the student to follow along. As humans we can only keep so many things in our minds, so anything unnecessary is a distraction. When teaching somebody a piece of information, break it down into small, possibly independent pieces. This way limit the number of unknowns at any moment to only one, because if the other person isn’t paying full attention or simply didn’t understand then you can repeat or clarify. By breaking down the lesson into smaller bite-sized learnings the recipient of the information has better chance of “getting it”.

The order of the pieces of information is also important. If you jump into a middle of a conversation, then so many things don’t make sense because they were introduced and described earlier in the conversation and now they are assumed for known and taken for granted.

There are many situations in life where you might be explaining something complex and you might think that certain parts of it are obvious but they wouldn’t really be obvious to the other person. The problem that you don’t  know whether the other side understands you and what they understand. Even if they say “Yes, I understand”, chances are that their understanding differs from yours. While many times the differences wouldn’t matter for the task at hand, when they actually do happen to matter the situation turns into arguing and negotiating. By keeping an active dialogue with the other side about what they understand you get much better feedback on what you need to clarify and because of this feedback you can move the conversation forward. One step at a time, but at least you know it is in the right direction.

One piece of information at a time is the speed limit of human communication. Here “at a time” means one loop of a conversation. If communication happens in person, then loops are short and communication can go back and forth fast. Pieces of information can build up on top of previously communicated pieces of information, as long as the previous piece of information is shared by both parties. The “one step at a time” becomes really important in this case, as without it failures of understanding are harder to pinpoint.

When I first arrived to USA and took a driver exam I got failed. I didn’t fail because the exam was harder than the exam I had previously passed in Bulgaria. It was actually easier and shorter. I failed because I hadn’t really learned to control the car to the point where control comes naturally and viscerally. It took me a fair bit of driving with my Bulgarian license to become precise and foresightful about driving.

My driving skills got developed to the level of not having to think at all about “how do I make the car accomplish this”. Instead, I only think about “what” I want to accomplish and my subconsciousness takes care of it.

But I still had room to improve.

Last year I was driving through the mountains, on a curvy road, and my friend said I was shaking the car too much, by doing very sudden turns. He said that while such turns might be necessary for racing drivers, they are completely unnecessary when driving a normal car. Driving smooth wasn’t a skill to learn before following traffic and before getting a good control over the car. But because I had these skills then,  learning to drive smoothly become the next step of learning for me. And I improved on it. I have more steps to learn, and plan to learn them one step at a time.

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