Playing It Too Safe

July 7, 2008

The Suburban I own is eight years old. It has over 135,000 miles on it. In 2005, when it had about 110,000 miles on it, we drove it from Texas to Minnesota and back for a soccer tournament. After that, I got concerned about reliability and gas prices. Instead of upgrading to a new Suburban, we bought a Honda Accord and kept the old Suburban. Last December I took the Suburban in for a thorough “check-up” and decided it was sound enough for a road trip to Orlando and back. It did great. At the end of June we had a road trip to the beach and then back to San Antonio to drop my son at soccer camp. I took the Suburban, and it did great, especially driving on the sandy beach.

So why did I decide to drive the Accord when my younger son and I went back to San Antonio to pick up my older son? I’ve put nearly 30,000 miles a year on the Accord, but it’s only three years old. I get the oil changed regularly and have all the necessary services done. I even had the tires rotated and balanced and serviced the air conditioner a couple of weeks before the road trip. I thought taking the Suburban on another road trip might be risky. I thought taking the Accord was a safe bet. I was wrong.

Things were fine on the way down and while we drove around San Antonio. But about twenty miles into the trip on the way back, a minivan came rushing up beside me to honk and wave and tell me the front tire was pretty low. I pulled off at the next exit and looked for a gas station. As I pulled up to a light and spotted a Shell sign, we smelled a musty smell in the car and the air conditioner started blowing hot. The rear view mirror fogged up, too.

The tire was pretty close to flat, and when I put air in it the side started bulging in two different places. Being astute, I realized that was a problem. And up until that moment I would have sworn one of the reasons I chose an Accord over other options was that it had a full-size spare. Turns out it’s just one of those temporary donut tires, which means you can’t drive 260 miles to home on it. The local store from the national chain I use to purchase tires was closed on Saturdays in that town, and the other national chain had a three-hour wait. It seems they were slammed by all the people with flats and tire problems on the day after Independence Day. Sometimes synchronicity sucks.

Fortunately, a local shop was able to sell me a good-enough tire for the drive back. But they didn’t have access to a new condenser for my air conditioner. We drove home with the windows down, which let my sons experience my version of walking to school ten miles in the snow, uphill, both ways. My car in high school didn’t have air conditioning. In Texas, that only really matters six or eight months of the year.

This trip and its misadventures are still fresh on my mind, but part of what I hear the universe screaming at me is you can’t always play it safe, because safe is often out of our control. I made a cautious choice and gave up comfort and space and luxury to keep from worrying about possible problems with the Suburban. I wound up with two annoying setbacks that were nothing but random chance.

I’m not reckless and I never have been. I’m overly cautious in a lot of ways, and I over-think and over-analyze some situations. But there’s safe, and then there’s an unfounded façade of safe. I made my choice of vehicle for the trip partly based on worry, seeking more certainty. But that’s now what I got.

If I had had a flat tire in the Suburban I would have driven home on the full-size spare with just a few minutes delay. A replacement part for the air conditioner would have been easy to find, because it’s an older American vehicle. I forgot about the flip side of trying hard to avoid problems – the fact that you need to plan to handle them, because they’re definitely going to come.

Things turned out pretty well, considering the tire could have blown. A blowout on the highway would have been dangerous. I was able to drive easily to a gas station, change to the donut spare, and get to a repair shop pretty quickly. Avoiding problems is good when you can do it, but handling the problems once they happen is more important in the long run.

For me this reinforces the “ready, fire, aim,” approach to business, which isn’t reckless, but is willing to take calculated risks, fail quickly falling forward, learn and improve, and get going again. I realized I sit on the fence for too long with some decisions where there is no perfect, or significantly better, choice. I need to choose with an awareness of the possible challenges and pitfalls of whichever path I take and be ready to handle them.

I keep “learning” this in my head, but I don’t consistently live it in my actions. It’s a great reminder at a time when I’ve been feeling stuck in the middle of some of those decisions without any perfect or clearly better options.

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey

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