Zen and teaching your son to drive

When I turned 17, I excitedly got my “L” plates and attached them to my Dad’s car and asked him to take me for a driving lesson on the quite and straight country road close to our house in the Borders of Scotland.

As I tried to master applying some throttle to keep the revolutions up while gently engaging the clutch, I stalled the engine and the car jerked forward. Embarrassing but not unexpected.

“Try it again”, my father said gently.

Stalled it.


Stalled it


My father was patient, but even Job would not have had sufficient patience once this happened about 20 times or so. Zen he was not, in that moment.

Ok, so his car was, for the time, a performance car with what I realised later was a fine level of tuning and a heavy clutch. A Capri 2.8 “Injection” for those old enough to remember!

zen teaching to drive

So, again not unexpected that I would repeatedly stall it, nor, ultimately that my father would leave that one lesson and then never teach me again, instead of paying for a driving instructor.

I could sense, though, that he was frustrated both in me and in himself.

However, it took nearly thirty years for me to be able to fully understand why this had been difficult for him.

I realised this a number of years ago one of my Shirlaws mentors taught me a powerful model. 

You see, my father was an amazing driver. Had he not had a family to bring up, I feel he would have allowed himself to dream and be a professional racing driver. As it was, he was a successful and highly regarded amateur racer and I spent many of my weekends growing up at tracks and hill climbs watching him in “flow” behind the wheel.

Why then did he struggle to teach an absolute beginner how to drive. The answer is that he was at a level of absolute: “Unconscious Competence” and to teach one must be “above the line” at Conscious Competence.

Let me explain that model with an analogy.

  • Imagine you are part of a tribe in the Amazon that have never met or even seen anybody outside your tribe. You live a subsistence lifestyle of hunting and gathering and have never gone anywhere other than on paths in the jungle and on foot or sometimes by canoe.
  • As regards the modern world, you are at a learning level called UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE, you don’t know what you don’t know!
  • As regards the modern world, in this “UI” state you are, quite naturally, calm and relaxed, as it is not part of your awareness at all.
  • One day I, an engineering manager for a logging plant a few hundred km away, come to your tribe with interpreters to recruit labour for our expanding operations. A number of you accept the offer of employment to help your tribe. I size you up and decide to off you the job of driver. The interpreter then tells you “you will drive the manager in his car”, to which you ask “what is a CAR!?”.
  • In one moment, you have suddenly shifted your learning state from “UI” to “CI”, from Unconscious to CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE.
  • In the “CI” state you are not calm, you are unsure, uncertain, worried. You know that you don’t know!
  • We get to the logging plant and I show you around, then I show you the car you will drive. “Ah, THAT is a CAR!” you say. You now know a little more.
  • Learning by learning, you gradually move around the curve of competence, You learn what a steering wheel is, what the pedals do, what the gear stick does, and eventually, you learn to drive.
  • When you can drive competently, your learning state is CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE. Remember now in your own life (no longer imagining yourself in your Amazon tribesperson persona), how when you first drove a car you were always highly conscious of looking in your mirror? every signal? manoeuvre? action?
  • Now, consider now the last time you drove a car. Can you remember anything at all about actually HOW you drove on that journey? No, thought not. You have reached the level of UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE.
  • At that “UC” level, you literally cannot remember how to drive, you just drive.

So, back to my father. Much as he would have loved to teach his son to drive, he couldn’t. He was SO expert that the gap was much too big between his “UC” and my first day “CI”.

If you are ever seeking to teach, or to be responsible for teaching, recognise that you must first bring yourself back from UC to CC before you can teach. You must remember what you learned before you can teach it.

{As a tip, consider NOT using the most expert in your organisation to teach the new people, but instead choose those who are only relatively new to the learning. They will be able to teach from a place of empathy for the “CI” students and also they will more deeply embed their own learning.}

Please do share this widely, I feel it has been one of the most powerful learning tools I have come across in many years.

Oh, and always tell a story to explain it. Stories land.