Learning About Work Ethic From My High School Driving Instructor

Bob of the Easy Method Driving School has spent his entire life teaching his students how to drive -- and there's nothing he loves to do more


The car horn is like a lovely word defiled. It was never meant to be profane. It was never meant to be deployed only in a rage or in a hurry by our dumb and vulgar selves. It's just a signal. A safe driver, if she were driving safely, would honk her horn -- quick taps -- maybe once an hour: when a schoolchild or squirrel threatened to enter the road; when she approached a man pulling out of his driveway but couldn't make eye contact; when lingering for too long, perhaps because of traffic, in another car's blind spot.

I know this because Bob told me eight years ago. Bob taught me how to drive: Before I could get my license I was required by law to enroll in a behind-the-wheel driver training program and people said his was the best.

At an appointed time he picked me up in a modest sedan with one of those giant pizza-delivery prisms on the roof that broadcast both the name of his driving school and my dangerous incompetence. We had three sessions of two hours each. I drove around the suburbs and Bob talked nonstop the whole time about the micromechanics of driving and traffic accidents and the role of body language at intersections and the true purpose of the highway shoulder and the way you're supposed to ease the wheel back, after a sharp turn, with a "controlled slip." Then he took me to the DMV for the practical test and I passed.

All of Bob's students passed. For the hardest part, the parallel parking, he had a trick. On his car's back right window he stuck a New Jersey Devils decal. When it came time to parallel park, you were to pull up until the back of the decal was aligned with the parking spot's front left cone. You turned the wheel clockwise as far as it could go, looked out the back windshield, and stopped exactly when another sticker -- I forget what that one was -- was aligned with the back right cone. Finally you spun the wheel fully counterclockwise, eased back, and straightened out.

When they gave me my license I left in a hurry, eager as I was to join the legions of bad New Jersey drivers. I thanked Bob. Then I did what everybody who's ever had a driving instructor has done: I forgot about him.

* * *

There is a guy who works the register at the pharmacy across the street who regularly makes my day. He doesn't do anything spectacular -- he's just good at his job. He fluently handles cards and cash; he offers you the pen ready to sign, and makes sure your receipt doesn't curl up; he has memorized the prices of things so that you don't have to wait when a barcode is missing. And he's pleasant in a real way, not like a waitress paid to be bubbly, but like a friend in high spirits. When he says "take care" the words are inflected with humanity.

It reminds me of a flight attendant I once saw and this maneuver he had developed, where right before he scooped ice into a passenger's cup, he'd tilt his hand just so, steep enough that the liquid condensation would roll back into the ice box, but not so steep for the cubes themselves to fall. That way there wouldn't be any extra water along with the ice, and the passenger could enjoy her cold soda at full strength.

Why are these little moments of care so delightful? Because they stand out against a backdrop of listless dissatisfaction. Take the staff at my local grocery store. In a typical visit someone will fumble your credit card; forget what's in stock or where it goes; enter the wrong price; or ignore the basics of bagging. When they say "good night" it's on behalf of the store, not themselves, and they clearly don't give a damn.

On the one hand you sympathize. Bagging groceries is boring; it doesn't pay well; the customers are unpleasantly demanding. That's a brutal trio. It's also fairly common. If bitter torpor seems like the default human operating mode out there in the workaday world, may it not just be that a lot of people have jobs they don't like, jobs they can't like? Who can blame them for that?

Then I think of the flight attendant and the pharmacy, and a small handful of my friends and colleagues, and I remember that there is such a thing as a work ethic and that the people who have it seem to have it all the time.

It's hard to say "work ethic" without sounding like an asshole. But I think it's worth getting a grip on what it means. It seems to me a bit opaque, perhaps like one of those words -- "skyscraper" or "doughnut," say -- which we are so used to seeing as compound wholes that we forget the components. The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter would call them "tightly bonded semantic chunks," like "pieces of wax that have melted together in the bright sunlight."

"Work ethic" seems like one of those chunks. It elicits a halo of simple images: a man hunched over a desk, staying late, furrowing his brow. The "work" part dominates. One forgets the word "ethic" is in there.

But as Thomas Crocker, an associate professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, reminds us, doing a good job, or not doing it, is very much a moral question. Here he quotes Matthew Crawford on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

Here is the paradox. On the one hand, to be a good mechanic seems to require personal commitment: I am a mechanic. On the other hand, what it means to be a good mechanic is that you have a keen sense that you answer to something that is the opposite of personal or idiosyncratic; something universal. ...

Pirsig's mechanic is, in the original sense of the term, an idiot. Indeed, he exemplifies the truth about idiocy, which is that it is at once an ethical and a cognitive failure. The Greek idios means "private," and an idiotes means a private person, as opposed to a person in their public role -- for example, that of a motorcycle mechanic. Pirsig's mechanic is idiotic because he fails to grasp his public role, which entails, or should, a relation of active concern to others, and to the machine. He is not involved. It is not his problem. Because he is an idiot.

Of course most people are not car mechanics or airline pilots. Most people have jobs where being a "moral idiot," as Crocker puts it, won't kill anyone. Should we really demand that the guy who checks ticket stubs at the movie theater hones his craft?

Well, yes. No job is too low to not warrant care, because no job exists in isolation. Carelessness ripples. It adds friction to the working of the world. To phone it in or run out the clock, regardless of how alone and impotent you might feel in your work, is to commit an especially tragic -- for being so preventable -- brand of public sin.

* * *

A month or two ago I was driving back to Manhattan with three friends in a borrowed minivan that had just over 120,000 miles on it. We were in the middle lane making a loping left turn on the highway. It was raining hard; I had the wipers at their fastest setting. A car crept up from the right to pass.

After enough uneventful driving you get the feeling that there is a protective envelope around your car. You forget that you are maneuvering a ton of steel and carbon fiber and moving faster than anything alive on Earth had moved in its first few billion years, in lanes just a few feet on either side.

It helps not to be at ease in that situation. It helps to be afraid, even -- if only so that when the car on your right makes a quick dash toward your lane your hand is already on the horn and your foot's already on the brake, and you've scanned your mirrors and know your outs. You honk and veer gently leftward. The other car retreats. You return home safely.

How often this sort of thing has happened, this thing where a tiny moment on the road has brought me to the edge of infinite doom and a dormant instinct brings me back. The difference between this last time and all the others is that for once I remembered where half those instincts came from. I remembered Bob.

Getting in touch with Bob was easier than I expected, given that I didn't remember his last name or the name of his driving school. It says something both about his stature in the state of New Jersey and the unnerving reach of Google's intelligence that I was able to type "bob new jersey driving" and see his business as the first result.

When he picked me up he was driving a different car than the one I remembered. He explained that he puts on about 60,000 miles per year and so replaces the car once every three. He has been a driving instructor for 32 years. His career began in 1979 when he turned twenty-one and started training under his father. They ran the business out of their house. Young Bob always answered his home phone the same way: "Easy Method Driving School."

If you do the math you discover that he has logged more than two million miles on the job. Along the way he's had just a handful of minor accidents. In every case he was rear-ended by someone else, and in every case the other driver was declared to be at fault, never Bob nor -- remarkably -- one of his students. I don't think it would be a stretch to say that he is one of the best drivers in New Jersey (which if you've ever been on the Garden State Parkway probably sounds like an insult, but it's not meant to be).

The student we were going to pick up had never driven before. First timers account for the larger part of Bob's business. For the most part they are all exactly the same age -- just turned 16 -- though he has taught adults as well. He said there was a big influx of East Germans when the Berlin Wall came down. "What's the first thing you want to do when you flee the Soviet bloc?" he asked. "Drive. Really be a free person."

I had forgotten that driving for the first time is a big deal. I was in the back seat when we pulled up to the girl's house, an Indian-American high schooler wearing a hoodie that said "Chatham Fussball" on it. She and her mother were standing on their doorstep. The girl couldn't stop smiling. Her mother's arms were folded. As Bob spoke both of them nodded, the daughter eagerly, the mother less so. Bob mimed grabbing the wheel and making a big turn, his hands at ten and two o'clock; they all laughed. A little sister poked her head out the front door.

One forgets how overwhelming the road can be. Bob was telling me before we pulled up for the lesson that "driving is about seeing." "Your eyes get there first," he said. The hardest part for a new driver is knowing where to look. I didn't believe him until we got to the student's first loop around a cul-de-sac: Instead of looking out her left window, toward where she was wheeling the car, she kept looking in the opposite direction to keep an eye on the curb, or worse, on her own hands.

It's quite jarring. You spend your entire life being driven around and it seems rather natural. But then you take the wheel and suddenly you have to pay attention -- actually pay attention -- to all the moving parts. For someone who's been at it a while it's mostly automatic. But consider: There is the problem of controlling the car, getting a feel for its weight, the sensitivity of the wheel, the brake, accelerator, and so on. There is the world inside: your adjustable seat and steering column, your posture and sightlines, all those cupholders and compartments, the radio, clock, your phone, your fellow passengers. The dashboard has its own meters and messages that must be checked every so often; so too with your mirrors. There are the other drivers on the road. There are the signs, speed limits, potholes, detours, construction sites, and other unpredictable exceptions to the regular rules of the road, and on top of that the general problem of knowing where you are, and on top of that whatever you happen to be thinking about.

The first-timer is too wrapped up in fearful tunneled focus to do much beyond the basic work of not running into stuff. "Did you see that sign?" Bob would ask. "Watch your speed." "It's probably a good idea to check your mirrors every five to eight seconds." "See that one kid? Where's his friend?"

The poor girl never had a ready answer. She admitted to missing every single sign on the road. Bob says that students frazzled and exhausted after two hours of driving will often blow right by their own houses.

* * *

The market for driving instruction is crowded with part-timers looking to make a little extra income from their car, perhaps to defray the increasing cost of gas. The business has attractively low barriers to entry: mostly just a background check and a few hundred dollars in processing fees.

Which is roughly what you'd expect, I think. Driving instruction seems more like the sort of thing a high school teacher would take on after hours to round out his day, like coaching, than a lifelong home for the dedicated specialist. It doesn't feel worthy of the time and attention. Who would want to make a career out of driving kids around?

Bob is the exception that proves the rule. As art is central to an artist's life so driving is to Bob's. What's strange is that he's not even a car guy -- he doesn't follow NASCAR, he doesn't tinker under the hood. What he's passionate about is the safe operation of motor vehicles.

Like many long-time residents of a niche, Bob sees the world in a peculiar way. After a digression into the state's turn-on-red laws, for instance, he continued: "But then again, I've driven around here enough times to know every light, to know when you're allowed to turn on red and when you're not allowed to turn on red. I'll tell you, when I go someplace, like Boston -- you can turn on red there. I've been to Boston. I've turned on red." That was all he had to say about the trip.

Bob notices things that I suppose only a long-time driving instructor could notice, like how you could tell that a driver was from Hoboken by the way the screws framing their license plates are scratched and worn from having parked so many times in the city's tight, unmarked spaces. He has an uncanny memory for driving situations. He is constantly telling these insanely detailed and tedious stories, like the one about a student who back in 2006 took the curve too fast on Summit Avenue just north of Hillcrest -- Bob said the student had a tendency to accelerate into turns -- and nearly skidded off the road, but managed to stick it out because the town council had recently repaved the street with an expensive grippy top-coating. There are no climaxes in these stories. In fact they're not so much stories as nerdy shoptalk, the thinking-out-loud of an intensely interested man.

I'm reminded of how chess grandmasters can recall legal board positions with far greater fidelity than people who don't play, but perform about equally when the pieces are arranged in ways they'd never see in a real game. The difference is that a legal board position means something to the GM -- it's laced with strategic features like "pawn strength" and "control of the center," and composed of familiar scenarios like "the Sicilian opening" or "Queen's gambit" -- where to a layman it's still just a jumble of pieces.

Traffic is Bob's chess board. Where we see a mess of metal and nitwit drivers, he sees the interplay of tiny narratives: turns attempted and aborted, inelegant merges, a canny lane-switch in a roundabout. Three decades of this work have rejiggered his perceptual apparatus.

One incident stands out in particular. We were about an hour into the lesson and had just graduated from the backroads of the student's hometown to a two-lane street with steady traffic. The car in front of us had slowed down, signaled, pulled over toward the shoulder, and made a smooth right turn into a shopping complex. Bob was impressed. "See how nicely he positioned that car?" He explained to the girl that that was exactly how it was done. And then a while later, long after the moment had passed, he said quietly, more to himself than to either of us, "I really liked the way he did that." It had the ring of nostalgia to it.

* * *

There is no zealot like a convert. These days I am obviously in Bob's corner, but my impression as a 16-year-old was quite a bit different. He wore the same thing then that he was wearing when I saw him a few weeks ago: a short-sleeved button-down shirt, khakis, and a tan adjustable baseball cap with his business's name and phone number. He looked young for his age but not in a particularly good way. Maybe he still lived at home? He seemed to ramble, wrapped up in weird minutiae. He emanated George Costanza. I kept thinking of how Jerry would on occasion tease George by calling him "Biff," a reference to the son of the failed salesman Willy Loman. I imagined that Bob would fit in with the Lomans.

What changed is simple: At some point in the last eight years I realized that I'm an idiot, a moral idiot, and the chief symptom of my festering insecurity about work is a visceral contempt for indifference and a deep admiration of its opposite.

Ever since I graduated from college in 2009 I have been lucky enough to have a good job. I work as a computer programmer. My skills are in high demand. The trouble is, programming is a craft and I am not a craftsman. I sincerely believe that close enough is good enough. I do not live in the details. I'm not sure what the hell is wrong with me but I'm happy with code that mostly works. If I were to build a bridge that bridge would eventually collapse.

This didn't so much matter when I started, because when I started my projects were small and unambitious. But I am moving up in the world. I'm on applications now with lots of users, people who will depend on the stuff I build to do important work. When I do a half-assed job -- which is the same thing, I am now realizing, as not going out of my way to do an excellent job -- I am making their actual lives more difficult. I have seen this happen. Just last week my minor crimes of indolence cost two companies about eighty man-hours. People were on edge because of me; they were tired and unpleasant because of me.

This brand of occupational atrophy is no better for happening inside an office than its equivalent out there in restaurants and retail stores. In fact it's probably a lot worse. After all, one reason the guys on the 50th floor are paid more than the guys on the first is that their work, on the balance, is thought to have more impact -- a double-edged sword if there ever was one. How many unscrupulous investment bankers does it take to fuck up a global economy?

I came around on Bob because that's the road I'm on and it scares the crap out of me. I want to care about something the way he cares about driver safety. I want to be the opposite of a moral idiot, but I don't know how, and I'm fascinated by people who do. Bob oozes concern; he wants to infect the state of New Jersey with good driving habits. He respects his public role, the fact that the minute he's done with these kids they head straight for their parents' car keys and out onto the roads we share. When I asked him what he likes to do outside of work, he laughed: "This is my life."

His reward is the pleasure of depth itself. He's an expert; his brain has been reshaped, perhaps literally, by decades of close attention. The fact that he dove deep into K-turns and lane changes seems infinitely less important than that he dove deep at all. It's at once devastating and inspiring, devastating because I expect I'll never get there, and inspiring in the way that the old Calvin and Hobbes strip is inspiring, the one where Calvin, knee-deep in the dirt, shovel in hand, is approached by Hobbes: "Why are you digging a hole?"

"I'm looking for buried treasure!"

"What have you found?"

"A few dirty rocks, a weird root, and some disgusting grubs."

"On your first try?"

"There's treasure everywhere!"

Image: Easy Method Driving School.