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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Job Skills You Can Learn from Driving a Stick

Last night, as I was navigating through rush-hour gridlock and mentally reviewing the events of the workday, a small car with two broken taillights suddenly darted in front of me. As I braked and down-shifted to avoid a collision, I couldn’t help but notice some parallels between my driving and my day in the office.

Sure, all drivers need to pay special care whenever they get behind the wheel, but driving a stick has afforded me some unique expertise—not only for surviving on the freeway, but for navigating the bumps in the road I’ll inevitably encounter in the office, too.

Even if you’re not willing to trade in your automatic, here are a few things to learn from manual-transmission prowess.

You Can Handle False Starts and Stalls

Anyone who’s ever driven a stick knows the feeling. You’re on a hill or stopped at a light. It’s time to go, and that perfectly-timed coordination between your clutch, the gas, and the gearshift misses a beat. The car sputters, or (the horror!) completely stalls out. And there you are, red-faced, holding up traffic, and desperately trying to get moving before the honking and bird-flipping ensues.

Though never fun, the experience does steel the nerves. Once you’ve made a few people miss their light, making a mistake in front of your colleagues just doesn’t seem as frightening. You know all you need to do is shift gears—and keep shifting, until you’ve got traction.

This strategy served me well at my first big presentation to my boss, when I was an associate at a large bank. I started giving my initial summary, and I could see his eyes glazing over. Did he think I wasn’t going anywhere with my project, that I was about to stall out? I was mortified. But I’d been in this position before (thank you, Gough Street hill in San Francisco) and I knew exactly what to do.

Rather than letting his reaction get to me, I simply switched gears and discussed other aspects of the project until I had his focus back. When the meeting was over, he was pleased with my progress—and even impressed with how well I recovered from the rocky start.

The next time you sense a conversation with your boss or a client is going nowhere fast, try this trick: Take a deep breath and get back into gear (ahem, or re-start your engine)—you’ll be moving forward in no time.

You Anticipate and Avoid Hazards

When I’m driving a stick, I’m completely engaged. After all, my vehicle’s continued forward motion is completely dependent upon me knowing when to shift gears, so I have to be constantly on the watch for potential hazards. I’m trained to sense and anticipate the car two lanes over that I just know will be cutting everyone off to make the next exit, causing a chain reaction of brake slamming and swerving.

That skill comes in handy at the office, too. I’m engaged and aware of my environment, and I can easily see that  colleague who’s coming down with the flu will likely be calling in sick the next day, enabling me to prepare in advance for the extra workload. Or, I see a pattern of tiny hiccups with a client’s service, so I know to give her extra attention and assure her I’m on top of things, ensuring a small issue doesn’t snowball into a four-alarm fire.

By staying in tune to your surroundings, you’ll impress your clients and colleagues with your forward-thinking, and all the while build a reputation as someone who can see the road ahead.

You’re Decisive

Driving a stick is not for the faint of heart. You need to be on your toes at all times, and you can’t dilly-dally. You need to make quick, intelligent moves to keep up with the pace and avoid confrontations. Taking an extra second or two to decide if you want to switch lanes could prove disastrous, as the situation has no doubt changed since your first glance over your shoulder.

The same principle rings true for your professional life. How many successful mentors and leaders do you find lingering back and forth between decisions? Not many, right?

Indecisiveness is not an attractive quality in a boss. Several years ago, I had a manager who constantly changed his mind about what he wanted. He once told the entire team he needed some particular information, and that it was a top priority and we needed to drop everything to work on it—only to wander over to our desks a few hours later and brush it all off with a dismissive wave, telling us he’d changed his mind. He then instructed us to scrap everything we’d come up with and to start over on his new and “improved” idea.

Needless to say, no one had much respect for him after that. Being indecisive not only hints you don’t know where you’re going, but it also implies that you have little respect for everyone who’s in the lane behind you.

Maneuvering through traffic with a stick-shift is a lot like navigating through a typical day at the office. Even if you’re still not ready to give up your automatic (really, I haven’t convinced you?), remember this lesson: Drive skillfully, and you’ll gain confidence, avoid pile-ups, and soon find yourself cruising in the fast lane.

Photo courtesy of psmithy.