Living By Our Headlights

Jim Ballard
© 2000 All Rights Reserved

E.L. Doctorow once said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Author Anne Lamont says of this kind of thinking, "You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing--or life--I have ever heard."

Most of us live daily, hourly, with the assumption that we know where we're going. We might be better off not assuming so. In fact, we live by faith...

• faith that there will be oxygen for the next breath
• faith that the chair or the floor will hold us up
• faith that the oncoming car won't swerve into our lane
• faith that our food will digest, our heart will go on beating
• faith that life in all its complexity and delight will be there for us in the next moment, even if we blink

A hero in a Western story I am reading tells a woman he's going to free her father , who's innocent. from jail. "How will you do it?" she asks. "Lady," he says, "I don't know. I never know what I'm goin' to do before I have to, and then I do it."

That may be the way to live. Seriously.

I'm convinced that most of the stress and worry associated with the pace of modern life is due to our attempts to hang on to the way we used to think and act when things were more predictable. If we could let go of the old ways and relax, we could start to surf the changes rather than be thrown by them.

We need to stop telling ourselves, "I should have known, I should have been prepared." Get over apologizing to ourselves for doing things "just in time." Start practicing just-in-time knowing, just-in-time finding of resources, just-in-time responding to changing needs, just-in-time decision-making, just-in-time living!

What is all this pre-planning we do, anyway? We set goals, create action plans, fill in to-do lists in our planners and Palm organizers and assure ourselves that we've scoped out the path ahead. But does a typical day go as scheduled? Ever? (Okay, there was the afternoon of that day last month . . . )


"Compassion requires believing that man is more than a
machine . . .A traffic jam is now just so many cars, not people.
People are only the operators of cars that are in our way."
—Robert Burton, "Machinery of the Soul"

When we live strictly by our plan, by getting to where we're going, we miss the really good stuff. Anxious to reach our target, we act frustrated and interrupted when something looms up unexpectedly. Yet that "interruption" might be the very thing we need. It slows us down. It says,

Hey, look at me! Hel-LO-o! I've GOT something here for you!

When we experience something as an interruption, we don't really see it for what it is. We act like it's in our way. What happens when it's our spouse, or our boss, or our customer, or our kids? (Kids well know the feeling of being treated as if they're in the way.) We really might be missing out on some important times.

Some of the richest and most satisfying experiences in my life have been side trips. Unexpected detours. Unplanned time-outs to find out what was over the hill. I was going somewhere, and something stopped and re-routed me. I could have treated it as if it was "in my way." But I didn't. Two careers and my most significant relationship are included in this category.

Think about some of your own most important life events and experiences. Were some of them side trips?

SERENDIPITY isn't just what happens. it's an actual skill. According to Hugh Walpole, who coined the word, serendipityis "the ability, through sagacity and good fortune, to findsomething good while looking for something else."

We talk about short-term goals. How about short-short-short-term goals--you know, like the headlights? Living each day by our headlights would...

• keep our attention closer to where it counts--in the present.
• prevent our feeling so caught and stupified by sudden change.
• open our eyes to the gifts of Serendipity.

In the movie An Ideal Husband the main character says, "So many things to do, and only one thing to be done." What is that one thing to be done? It's the Right Thing to Do in the Moment you've got. How do you know it from all the many other things here are to do? You do whatever it takes to bring your attention to the Present. If you are present, it will be there.

So, get your purpose and values clear. Clearer still. Let them guide you. You may not know where you're going, but when you Know Where You're Going you can relax into the faith that you'll make responsible choices, and that things will be there when you need them. Then you can enjoy the ride, and take all the side trips you want.

James Ballard is a management consultant, leadership trainer, motivational speaker, consulting partner with the Ken Blanchard Companies, and author of What's the Rush? He founded Maudala Press, a direct-mail educational publishing firm, and wrote a series of children's books and books for teachers on humanistic education. Mr. Ballard has also helped create a number of widely-used Blanchard Training and Development models including "Managing the Journey", "Leadership Training for Supervisors", "Quality-Driven Leadership", and "Everyone's a Coach".

Category: Work-Life, Balance
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