Such strenuous living, I just don’t understand

August 5, 2008

I had some more driving lessons at the weekend.

I am still not a very good driver. Paul downgrades his ambition for me further with every lesson. Now we’re at ‘I’ll be happy if you can take the car out without having a panic attack.’ I point out that I still need to be able to park the damn thing. He says, ‘You might never be able to understand what the car’s doing, but if you learn the instructions for parallel parking then you’ll be okay’.

It got me thinking about strengths again. Peterson and Seligman claim that we have signature strengths, and that we’re at our best when we use them. They argue that signature strengths are innate and immutable. Similarly, Marcus Buckingham, who has led much of the extensive research on this at Gallup, makes a powerful case for focusing on our inborn talents. It’s an efficiency argument: we work hard on our weaknesses to improve slightly, whereas we can improve our strengths rapidly with much less investment, working with the grain rather than against it.

I mostly agree. In particular, as I believe I’ve written before, I think we waste a lot of time trying to be good at everything. In the corporate world, employers waste a lot of time trying to get their staff to be good at everything. And they sideline those who aren’t gifted at their ‘core competencies’, rather than finding out what people are good at. That’s the genesis of SSP.

I do better when I focus on my strengths than my weaknesses, even when my weaknesses are more directly related to the task in hand. I don’t understand why this is true – and I’ve never successfully made the case for it to an employer – but I believe it.

But I’m not learning to drive because I want to be good at everything. I’m learning to drive because I don’t want my father to be confined to barracks when my mother isn’t there. Whether I have natural talent is a moot point. It does raise an interesting question, though – how good should I try to be? Is there such a thing as a ‘good enough’ driver? Is it sufficient to have a formula for parallel parking, or do I need to understand exactly what the car is doing? It’s particularly interesting because the stakes are high.

And, as so often, I also think that it’s Always More Complicated.

Growing up, my gifts were those of the intellect – logic, analysis and synthesis, mathematics, creative thinking. I couldn’t relate to people at all. I didn’t understand them and they frightened me. I couldn’t work out the rules of saying the right thing, and therefore I usually said the wrong thing, and I couldn’t understand why it was wrong. In this day and age, I might have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Over twenty-years, I taught myself to be good with people. It has been slow. It has been difficult. I have had many setbacks and I have often been tempted to give up. But I am now better at being good with people than most of the people who are born good with people, because I have worked at it so hard. For the last five or ten years I have mostly been employed to be good with people.

And – here’s the interesting thing – when I work with people now, it feels like I’m using a signature strength. I’m in flow. I am energised and enthused. My soul is saying, yes, this is the work you are here for. It feels very similar to solving a complex problem, which really is work I was born to do.

So what’s happening when we use our strengths? Is it nothing more than the pleasure we take in the exercise of competence? Could I feel like this when driving if I practised enough?

Or is there more to it than that?

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18 Responses to “Such strenuous living, I just don’t understand”

  1. birdwoman Says:

    Interesting post. While growing up, I didn’t do things I wasn’t good at (like all the sports we did at school). This was because I was good at all my academic subjects, so I felt I had to be good at everything. Nowadays I have branched out a bit – I’m not especially good at running, yoga, or climbing, but I enjoy them. Although I get defensive when I’m with someone who is much better (running with Chris, for instance, because he’s much faster). And I totally get what you say about feeling that you’re using a signature strength when working with people, because I feel the same when I’m teaching.

    I’m not sure that driving fits into the model, though. I think it’s just one of those things that anyone can do with practice. Most people who can’t parallel park just haven’t practised enough (I lived in a Glasgow tenement, Chris lived on a farm with loads of off-street parking. I’m pretty good at reverse parking but it’s taken him longer). I dislike single-track roads because I don’t drive on them much and so I have an irrational fear of ending up in a ditch, while he can squeeze the car through a tiny gap between the hedge on one side and a tractor on the other.

    I was a very, very nervous driver at the age of 18, when I passed my test. I hated driving. I avoided it whenever possible. Then my Grandad died and Mum announced I was having his car, because it was his pride and joy and she didn’t want to sell it. I was terrfied at first, but it did me the world of good. Now I love driving, I watch Top Gear and dream of owning an MX5. So yes, I think you could “feel like that” about driving eventually!

    Sorry, long rambling comment – hope it’s at least slightly relevant!

  2. Francesca Says:

    I always thought that was true. But Paul was talking about a client of his who has practiced parking her car in the space outside her house every day for three years and still can’t do it. So now I’m not so sure.

    I watch Top Gear. But I feel bad about it afterwards, like a vegetarian caught with a hamburger.

  3. Sheenagh Says:

    Well, I hear you about the driving. When I had lessons (I’ve moved since then, and need to start up again when I have the money) I was quite competent, except at reversing or parkinig. And my instructor and I worked out that this is because I can’t do spacial awareness well. I can’t do those exercises where you rotate shapes in your head to see which one fits what. I can’t picture parking spaces in my head and how the car fits into it, I can’t ‘sense’ where the end of the car is. My dad, bless him, thought this was because I ‘needed pracctice’ or ‘wasn’t trying’. It’s not. I just can’t seem to do it. I can get a bit better, but not enough to rely on it.

    So what my instructor did was work with what I could do – I am very good at learning a complex list of aids and instructions and remembering them and putting them into practice. I’m good at repeating until I can do it. So we worked out how I can actually check where I am in relation to the space (if the back windwo lines up with the space, that sort of thing) and I began to get it. I will never be able to do it on instinct – I will not be able to handbrake turn and skid into a parallel parking space. I cannot reverse as well and as easily as I can go forwards (like my dad can).

    So my advice would be – what is it that stops you being a good driver. Are you scared stiff you’ll run someone over? Do you find it hard to co-ordinate hands-eyes-feet? Do you lack the mechanical knowledge or awareness to work out how the car is doing what it’s doing? All of those can be worked around or improved a bit.

    ‘Being a good driver’ is a whole range of skills, and it’s unlikely you’re bad at all of them.

    (Oh, and a good enough driver is one who can drive safely under a range of conditions)

  4. dan Says:

    No–it can’t just be the joy in competence, though that’s part of it. I’m not a great singer: I’m a good singer. But my soul soars when I sing, soars sometimes gloriously.

    And we wouldn’t have that marvelous, “I’ve come home” feeling that happens when we discover a new hobby that is just right. I guess, said another way, there are those things for which even developing the confidence and skill to be competent are a great joy, and others for which, even when that process is fast, it’s still hell.

    (And I wish you good luck with the driving. I’m an odd driver now, agressive and grumpy, but I’m good at it. But learning to drive was one of the worst things I have ever experienced.)

  5. Francesca Says:

    Reply to Sheenagh: I love this comment. It really illustrates the way I like to do strengths coaching – and it works.

    What I’m good at? There’s not much. But going forwards, I can actually manoeuvre the car pretty well, and I can judge whether or not it will get through a tight space better than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m good at just getting my head down and practising again and again, even when it’s tiring and I’m depressed by how bad I am. I’m good at not giving up. I’m good at staying cheerful and laughing at myself. I’m quite good at going over speed bumps without shaking the passenger.

    What’s going wrong? Two things, mainly. The first is that I am really bad at taking in and processing visual data. I don’t see everything that other people see, and even when I do see it I often can’t interpret it. You need to do a lot of processing visual data in driving.

    The second is that I can’t do reverse. I can’t interpret what I see in any of my mirrors. I don’t understand the relationship between what I do with the steering wheel and what the car does. This is problematic.

  6. Francesca Says:

    Reply to dan:

    I agree with your middle paragraph, but I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing. Indeed, I’m not sure what I think you’re talking about.

    My soul soars listening to music. (Beethoven today.) But that’s not using a strength.

    If it’s not competence, then what is it? What do you think is happening?

  7. dan Says:

    Well, it was sounding like you were trying to convince yourself that the pleasure of using one’s strengths is the same as the pleasure of competence, or coming from that same place.

    And I think they’re related, and yet, we might have strengths in things that we’re not superbly competent at, where the joy of flexing those (still developing or even never-to-be-fully-developed) muscles in our strengths can be a lot more fun than flexing the muscles of the competences that we have that aren’t all that much fun.

    (I’m trying to come up with something that I’m “naturally skilled” where I haven’t worked to develop it, and almost nothing comes to mind. An example for me might be that I have a real gift for, and find real joy at, making connections between the historical readings I read. But I never bothered to learn much of being a historian, partly because, well, life’s better as a computer scientist. I’m also really good at pronouncing languages I don’t know, which occasionally gets me laughed at…)

  8. Francesca Says:

    So what do you think the difference is between strengths and competence?

    I’m the opposite of you. I’ve only ever worked to develop things where I wasn’t naturally skilled. I have no idea what it feels like to work on something I’m gifted at – and, as a corollary, no idea whether and how it feels different from working on something I’m not gifted at.

  9. dan Says:

    I really think it’s that moment of “aha! This is right!”, more than anything. At dinner tonight, Daniel made an analogy to falling in love, and I think that’s lovely: we don’t necessarily understand it, but suddenly it has the property that even the beginning of it and the middle of it is fun: being consciously incompetent at something is actually fun, not stressful.

    I’m back to singing, actually: when I first learned to sing, I sang in MIT’s corridors for the sheer joy of it. I probably sucked; this week, I’ve been singing the “Credo” from the G-minor mass of Vaughan Williams, and, well, 15 years later, I can sing that pretty well. (Then there’s the JSTO, but we won’t discus that here…)

    This all feels like it joins terribly, though, with your example of the core strength you’ve got in being good with people. I don’t know what to say. What’s it like for you to use that? How do you feel your spirit in it?

  10. Daniel Says:

    I’m an OK driver. I’ve had exactly one accident, when I backed out of a tight space and ripped off the driver’s side mirror on a wire that was anchoring a light pole.

    By rights, I probably should’ve had a few more accidents, involving other vehicles. I have lapses in observation, and I think it’s from the same thing you’re talking about- too much information at once.

    Often that information isn’t entirely outside the car, or even outside my own brain. I’ve observed that I sometimes drive worse when d’s in the car with me. I think it’s because I sometimes subconsciously feel pressured to drive more aggressively than I’m comfortable doing; which I think I’ve worked out. And I’m nervous at being critiqued. But I also need to manage to prioritize the inputs; it’s fine if I tune him out conversationally while I’m figuring out a road-sign. And simply having a critical party in the car can be a HUGE distraction, more so for me than for others, perhaps.

    I remember driver’s education class, and WOW was I full of self-critique and awful lapses, and not just because I was 17. The feedback loop with self-criticism was just awful. But it got better, once I was able to drive on my own. Quite a bit better. I enjoy driving myself places. (And I really enjoy driving myself when I’ve got my GPS to navigate; no more turning maps upside down and puzzling out where I am on it!)

    …I wonder, whether the fact that you’re setting on this project to be competent at driving your father around, might be a big factor in how you feel about it? Are you putting him in the passenger’s seat already?

  11. Ros Says:

    The second is that I can’t do reverse. I can’t interpret what I see in any of my mirrors. I don’t understand the relationship between what I do with the steering wheel and what the car does. This is problematic.

    I understand exactly. I was the kind of person who could draw perfect diagrams of light and mirrors and speeds and angles, but sitting behind a steering wheel, I would have no idea which way to turn the stupid thing. Anyway, in case it helps you, I’ll pass on the most useful piece of advice that one of my (many) instructors gave me: Turn the wheel in the direction you want to go.

    Amazingly, even in reverse, that works. So much so that when I had to take a Pennsylvania driving test last year (terrifying beyond belief) the examiner was very impressed at how well I did the parallel park. Though it was slightly more luck than judgment, I think.

  12. Sam Says:

    I’m a reluctant driver, as well – finally passed my test about a year ago. It is possible to go from being completely hopeless to being a (reasonably) safe driver, although I haven’t reached the point of enjoying it, and don’t really expect to, as I try to use the car as little as possible anyway.

    My main problems were poor spatial/speed judgement, so working out where vehicles would be in X seconds or whether I’d fit between the parked car and the other side of the road, and a tendency to panic. Both got a lot better with practice but it was pretty painful at the time.

    My advice, for what it’s worth, would be to try to break the problem down into specific skills and practice them as far as you can even when you’re not driving. You can watch other vehicles on the road and try to predict what they’re going to do and where they’re going to be, even if you’re a pedestrian. You can watch narrow gaps and see how much space particular makes of car have either side (this helped me, as I was always convinced I wasn’t going to fit). I found it also helped, if you have a car that you can drive outside lessons, to do things like driving round an empty supermarket car park, just concentrating on things like hearing when I need to change gear, or getting a feel for where the car is (parking spaces are useful for this, as you can get out and check whether you were right without danger of hitting things if you weren’t).

    Learning to drive involves learning an awful lot of skills simultaneously and having to put them in practice all at once. I found it terribly discouraging that there always seemed to be something new I was bad at – but on the other hand there were the moments when I noticed I’d just changed gear smoothly in the middle of concentrating on something else, whereas two months ago my concentration would have been on changing gear. Even if you’re the sort of person who learns fastest when doing everything at once, it’s worth bearing in mind just how much you’re doing.

  13. Francesca Says:

    Response to dan:

    I’m still not with you, sorry. I think you’re saying ‘set of strengths is a Venn diagram with set of competence’; you can be competent at something that’s not a strength, and you can be not-competent-yet at a strength (with the clear subtext that you would become competent with enough practice). But what defines the set of strengths, if not competence? Surely more than ‘something you love doing’ – a set of activities which does not imply future competence with practice?

  14. Francesca Says:

    Response to Daniel:

    Yes to all this. I’m okay with being critiqued, but I hate the knowledge that I just did something dangerous. I think ‘what if the other person hadn’t been in the car?’

    I’m not sure what to do about the observation thing. I could make myself slow down on corners if that was the problem, but I dno’t know how o make myself more observant.

    (Tpoys in this comment brought to you courtesy of Foxtrot)

  15. Francesca Says:

    Answer to Ros:

    When I’m in reverse, I can’t even work out which direction I want to go!

  16. Francesca Says:

    Answer to Sam:

    You’re definitely right that I am better at some things, thanks for the reminder.

    Observing traffic in London doesn’t buy me much for driving in Somerset, because London traffic goes so slowly! But I do like the idea that practising being observant when I’m not driving will help when I am. It would be good for mindfulness too. I might well try that one.

  17. Sam Says:

    Thinking about this last night, I realised that one of the ways I approached learning how to judge distances between me and other cars was to look for specific instances first, memorise them, then gradually work on generalising my experience. A lot of people just do that without thinking, so I had to work out an approach for myself. When I was, say, at a particular junction and my instructor said “you can go now”, or “you could have gone then” or “not yet” when I wasn’t sure, I’d try to remember where the other cars were in relation to other landmarks*. So, if the car doesn’t look like it’s going too fast (which is another judgement that needs practice) and it’s about level with the post box, then I’m OK. And the next time I got to that junction, I’d be more confident.

    And gradually, as I got more of that sort of data, it started to be easier to work out the appropriate distances for similar junctions, and then for less similar ones. And then it began to be a process that happened faster, so I wouldn’t be conscious of thinking ‘They’re about that far away, and that’s about the same gap that was OK yesterday’ but just ‘Is it safe? Yes’ which makes the whole thing much less stressful.

    *You can also do this when you’re a passenger, if you notice what the road looks like when the driver decides to pull out. Be aware that they will probably be able to do it faster than you for the moment, though.

    I worried a lot about doing something potentially dangerous, as well. Cars have a lot of power and weight compared to a bike! My instructor told me not to think about what might have happened if the other person wasn’t there, though – they are there for exactly that reason, and they’ll stay there to stop you doing something dangerous until both they and an examiner are reasonably confident that you won’t.

  18. Francesca Says:

    I am far more scared of cyclists than of petrol tankers. They’re so vulnerable. And you can never tell what they’re going to do. They don’t obey any rules.

    My ex used to laugh at me because I would navigate my way between two lorries with ease and then scream at the sight of a cyclist a hundred yards away.


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