The parable of the wrong-way car

Last week, I had a morning where I was already running late, and then I brought in my papermail and found two odd pieces of financial mail. Both pieces of mail seemed to contain somewhat alarming financial information; for example, one of them seemed to say that someone had emptied out my 401(k) account. (I don’t remember offhand what the other one was, but it was similarly startling.)

So I spent a while on the phone, trying to figure out what was going on in each of those cases. And in both cases, it turned out that nothing at all was wrong, and I could have safely ignored both pieces of mail without any problem.

I finished up what I needed to do at home, and then I drove to a nearby pharmacy to get a flu shot. (I went there because I had been at that pharmacy a few days earlier and there had been signs up saying things like “Get your free flu shot here!”) But it turned out they were all out of flu shots. (I later got one elsewhere.) Frustrated, I went back to the parking garage, got in my car, and headed for the exit.

I stopped near the exit to wait for a car to enter the garage, and so I had a fairly close view of what happened next. This is just my interpretation of what was going through the guy’s mind, but I think it’s pretty likely to be accurate.

The car that was entering the garage was driven by an older white man. He paused as he was entering, and looked ahead, and I’m pretty sure that he saw that where he was driving was marked with a white-painted arrow pointing outward; which is to say, he was coming in via the area marked as an exit.

What he didn't see was that there was another arrow, pointing inward, right next to the out-pointing arrow. In that garage, the entrance and the exit aren’t physically separated; you’re just supposed to stay to the right as you enter or exit. The opening is wide enough for both. If he had continued on his path, there wouldn’t have been a problem.

But the driver didn’t realize that (I’m assuming). He saw the exit arrow, and he thought he was accidentally coming in through the exit, and so he backed up.

Unfortunately, there was a pickup truck right behind him, also preparing to enter the garage. And before I could think of anything to do to warn him, the car driver backed right into the pickup.

Both drivers got out, and they exchanged appropriate information, and I re-parked my car and went over to make sure everyone was all right. They seemed to be (it had been a low-speed collision), so I got back in my car and left the garage through the back entrance, while the car driver slowly got his car out of the way of the main entrance.

And although I felt bad for both of the people involved, I couldn’t help thinking that that whole scene incidentally provided me with a concrete lesson from the universe, emphasizing my financial-letter experiences of that morning:

Sometimes, something that looks wrong isn’t, and sometimes the best approach is to continue forward along your path.

I know that that’s not always true. There’ve been times when a wrong-looking financial document turned out to indicate that something was really wrong; and there’ve been times when I trusted that if I just continued forward, everything would be fine, but then it turned out not to be. So I’m certainly not saying that this is a paradigm for all situations. I’m not even saying that I shouldn’t have bothered making the phone calls that I made that morning.

I’m just saying that it’s useful to me to keep in mind that in some contexts, continuing forward will carry you through, and second-guessing and hesitation can get you in trouble.

Of course, it can be hard to tell which contexts those are.

2 Responses to “The parable of the wrong-way car”

  1. irilyth

    I like the parallels to software too. In a heavily change-controlled computing environment, you often have a rollback plan in case a change goes poorly. In a high-velocity computing environment, you often fix issues with changes by continuing to move forwards, because rolling back is slow and/or difficult.

    Also reminds me of the phrase “no way out but through”, which I guess is a Robert Frost line.

  2. shmuel

    “[Tricia] reflected that if there was one thing life had taught her, it was that there are some times when you do not go back for your bag and other times when you do. It had yet to teach her to distinguish between the two types of occasions.” —Mostly Harmless, by Douglas Adams


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