A Drive to Remember … or Not

If the trends hold true, roughly 40 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles from home this year over Memorial Day weekend. That’s a big number. But, it feels like the same number of drivers I encountered during a recent 50-mile daytrip from Manhattan.

Driving in the world’s largest city, I’ve decided, is a lot like leadership. No matter how much experience you have, it’s always chaotic, unpredictable, and stressful, and it requires focus, persistence, patience, and flexibility.

So, here’s my story, to which I’m sure many leaders (and drivers) can relate.

I was in New York for business and decided to make a side trip to Princeton, N.J. There’s a professor at the university I’d been wanting to meet, and he agreed to give me an hour of his time. The plan was simple. I’d pop down to Princeton that morning, meet with the professor from 10 to 11 a.m., then make my way back to La Guardia Airport that afternoon for my 2:20 flight back to Denver.

I looked into taking a taxi, and I considered the “ride share” options (Uber, Lyft, etc.). But the cheap side of me came out when I discovered how much less it would cost to simply rent a car and drive myself. Plus, I enjoy driving and I figured it would give me some time to reflect on the meetings I had been in the previous day. Who doesn’t enjoy a little windshield time, right?

I’ve driven in New York many times, so the thought of navigating the city’s traffic didn’t deter me. But this particular day was hyper-challenging, even by New York standards. It was Friday morning rush hour. Cars were going 50 mph when they should have been going 20. Major battles ensued each time two lanes merged into one. Cars were making left-hand turns across two or three lanes. There were drivers all over the place – to my left, to my right, in front of me, behind me, and all across those yellow and white lines that are painted on the roads for no apparent reason. Signs were out of place throughout my route, and the ongoing construction at La Guardia created an unexpected nightmare of confusion.

I have a navigation app on my phone, of course. On my way to New Jersey, however, she – the app is a “she,” right? – apparently developed a case of laryngitis, because she lost her voice and didn’t speak at all. That created a lack of trust that caused me to frequently look down at the map on the phone, which only added to my anxiety. I believed her most of the time, but not when she gave me directions that didn’t intuitively feel right. The app, for instance, indicated I should take the “next right” for the Lincoln Tunnel – three intersections before I really needed to make the turn. On the way back, the app found her voice, but twice told me to make a left when I knew for sure that she was flat out wrong.

The 50-mile trip to Princeton took two hours. It got easier about halfway down I-95 in New Jersey, but my mind was too wrangled to reflect on anything other than driving. I was emotionally spent and already beginning to worry about the drive back. The return trip, of course, didn’t take me through the city, but it did require me to cross the George Washington Bridge. Suspension bridges are always nerve-racking for me because of my fear of heights, so I white-knuckled my way over the Hudson River.

When I got close to the airport, I realized that the construction was making traffic even worse around there than normal and most (maybe all?) of the road signs were missing in action. There were no signs, for instance, directing me to the rental car return, which, by the way, had been moved because of the construction. And since I hadn’t rented the car at the airport, no one had bothered to give me a heads up.

In short, this was a no-cruise-control type of trip. There was no daydreaming about the Stanley Cup playoffs (Pittsburgh was playing Philadelphia the day I made the trip). There was no reflecting on the previous meetings. My thoughts were simple: Get through this. Get home.

The interesting thing, however, is I wouldn’t change it for the world. Since I didn’t have an accident, it was an experience. But next time around I’ll probably take an Uber.

 

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