Expanding Walls

My first day at a track event was in the early 2000’s. My car was a new chili red Mini Cooper with a checkered flag decal on its roof. 115 horsepower is not a lot for a car today. I probably looked like a crazy person, or poser, or whatever, but this was how I was going to become a race car driver – by flogging our Mini at tracks all spring and summer learning from coaches while I also learned the tracks I planned to race on. The Cooper replaced a 240 Volvo wagon so it was a big step up in moving around, if not carrying things around.

In a video sponsored by The North Face clothing company about the first ski descent of the world’s fourth highest mountain (the 27,940-foot Lohtse next to Mount Everest), participant, Hillary Nelson says, “You have to take risks if you want to learn anything about yourself; if you want to expand the self-imposed walls we put around ourselves…but you don’t have to climb Lhotse to do that”

My first instructor, Charlie, wanted to hear the tires squealing. the Mini Cooper’s tires were okay, but not great for performance driving. “A happy tire is a singing tire.” I heard Charlie say through our intercom communication system, so I pushed a little harder on those rubber donuts. I think squealing would be a better description than singing. Either way they didn’t sound happy. While we were circulating Charlie asked me about my driving experience. I didn’t tell Charlie my plan was to become a race car driver. I talked about racing my bicycle in the park and learning how to read a pack so I knew how to position myself for a breakaway and where to be to avoid crashing riders. I talked about how I learned to look where I wanted to go.

All of us students at the track day were told that if we progressed enough that we would be able to drive solo on our own the last time out. I had three different instructors that day, not because I was a difficult student, but because that is how the driving club did things.) I can’t remember the second one’s name, but he talked about slow hands and making minor corrections on the way into a turn. My last third instructor of the day had something that looked like it just came from a Fast'n Furious movie set - a big wing and other aero doodads that were supposed to keep it stuck to the ground. My guess is the Cooper wasn’t getting a lot of respect behind my back since he shared that he thought it was good to start out in a low powered car like the Mini to learn performance driving without getting in over one’s head instead of a trying to tame a monster car whose limits you couldn’t test, but would scare you silly if you tried.

Something presumably like his winged thing. When he let me know that I had done well enough to drive on my own in the last session I was thrilled, and honestly, glad to be rid of the voice in my ear so I could concentrate on what I was doing instead of trying to do what the instructor was telling me to do on the fly.

Being on the track did not occur to me as risky or expanding my self-imposed walls. I’d been wanting to drive on a race track since I was about five years old. It seemed pretty natural to me to be ripping around making my tires squeal, if not sing. Before and since that first time on track I can’t remember a day when I haven’t thought about driving the car, my motorbike, or riding my bicycle. My driving is objectively better now than it was that day. I’m more sure in my decision making, and I don’t make as many mistakes. I’m quicker because I assess risk differently now than 15, 20 years ago so I push myself differently than I did then. I’ve worn out dozens of tires since Charlie was in the right seat of the car with me. These days I also listen to a lot of podcasts about racing and driving. I find it instructive to hear famous racers like the Mario Andretti’s, or Jackie Stewart’s of the world talk about how they pushed themselves when racing was super dangerous because the cars were flimsy compared to today and the race courses often had trees instead of runoff areas and impact absorbing barriers lining the road. What almost all of them say is that they tried to drive within their limits. Thing is, the limits are different for everyone. The limits for a Formula 1 world champion like Jackie Stewart are so much higher than mine - as are Hillary Nelson’s.

One way that I’ve tried to expand my self-imposed walls and raise my limits is by searching for new outside perspectives that I can try to apply to my driving. It doesn’t always work as a direct skill transfer, but just like how my bike racing helped me learn to look where I want to go, I also look for lessons that I can bring from the track that can be helpful wherever I go and with whoever I meet when I’m not wearing tires out.

Part of this is thinking about what you are bringing with you to your job from your past experiences at other jobs, and just as importantly, from things that you’ve done outside of those jobs. Another part of this is looking for new experiences. On a day when you’re feeling stuck, or feeling great (meaning you need to make, or have the time) write down two or three things that you feel make you, you. How do you apply those things? How do they help inform your decision process? Is there a gap that you’d like to fill? As Hillary notes, you don’t have to go mountain climbing. You also don’t have to go racing - just about anything will do - walking a different way home, seeing some art - as long as you are thinking about observing instead of just seeing.