Staying calm under pressure.

Some of you have said that my stories about truck driving have been useful. It occurred to me that this story might be of some little help in our current challenging situation.

What follows is a description of one of my most testing days as a lorry driver.

Firstly I was on my own, heading in to London, totally responsible for a 32 tonne mortar mix tanker. This isn’t ready made concrete but a mixture of sand and cement that gets blasted under pressure into large silos that are located on building sites.

The second thing is that not only do I have the responsibility for a large vehicle heading in to one of the busiest cities in the world, but I also have a knot in my stomach because I know that at the end of my drive I have a risky and stressful delivery process to carry out when I get there. Coupling up large pipes between the truck and the silo, firing up the noisy compressor, and trying not to blow the whole lot up was testing!

Lastly I am aware that the expectation is that I will do at least two, ideally three, such drops in the day, each time returning to the plant west of the city and repeating the whole process, so I feel under time pressure too.

The truck is fantastic. Relatively new and state of the art in terms of monitoring and cameras etc. But because of its weighty load, and the muddy locations I am delivering to, it has a manual gearbox to give more precise control over traction. Not only that but it has a split range gear box, with a high and a low range, that I have to switch between using an extra lever on the gearstick. Not a big problem except that the change from the upper range to the lower coincides with the speed change as you go into a roundabout. Add to this the fact that the truck really doesn’t like going down into third gear and you can imagine desperately trying to push the bloody thing down through the box without inadvertently ploughing straight over the roundabout!

Stressful!

But it gets worse. I hadn’t been to the site that I was delivering to before, it was on a bit of land which had confusing postcodes, and was on a road on which there are currently about half a dozen major building sites. It was far from clear which of these was the one I was aiming for. Add to this the fact that the road I was on didn’t have anywhere to turn except for a roundabout at the far end and then the one-way system at the other end forced me to go back onto the A40 and a couple of miles back up to the road to the notoriously difficult Hanger Lane Roundabout.

Each time I turned up at the wrong site I had to navigate my way out of the traffic, get close enough to the traffic marshall to speak to him, extricate myself from the entrance once I had realised it was the wrong site, and then head back up yet again to Hanger Lane.

By the time I was on my third attempt I was knackered and I was scared. I was close to packing it in and was fantasising about calling my agency, saying the keys are in the ignition, and walking away.

But then I started to slow things down. Applying what I have learned about meditation and mindfulness, noticing my breath, noticing the feel of the gear stick and the steering wheel in my hands. Enjoying each smooth gear change and precise turn. I slowly began to return to the moment. The feeling of being a failure brought on by what had recently happened began to diminish. The terror of getting it wrong again also began to reduce. I began to really enjoy the immediacy of my current actions, what was happening around me, sights, sensations, feelings as the whirling in my mind began to slow down.

This was obviously an unusual circumstance, and one that most of you won’t ever experience (except for the drivers who I know might be reading this and have to do it every day). But these practices apply generally in life.

What we think of as our past, even our very recent past, is a made up story, it’s not real, its filtered recollection of already filtered perceptions. My “story” was that I was a complete failure and utterly useless. When I got back to the yard I discovered that other drivers had also found the site difficult to find and faced similar challenges navigating their various attempts. My story was made up.

Again, in normal life, the future is most definitely a made up story. As current events are showing us our ability to reliably predict our futures are much more shaky than we like to think they are. In reality we have no idea what is going to happen in the next moment. In one respect that can feel terrifying, but in another sense, if we can hold onto this idea, it means that the future is nothing to worry about. It doesn’t exist yet. It is nothing.

All of this may sound like mumbo-jumbo but from experience it has helped me to keep the lid on when I felt like it was about to blow off. You still make decisions, often better decisions as you are calmer and more aware of what is happening around you, and you don’t disappear into a hippy daze either!

Hopefully this story might help some of you a little as you face your own challenges in the coming days.

3 thoughts on “Staying calm under pressure.”

  1. I think one lesson is that fear-based stories drive dramatic narratives — internal conspiracy theories as it were. What you say, Euan, also works on broader, social “stages,” too. One pertinent example is turning the current effort to contain Covid-19 into a “war.” We shall see what kind of irrational stories and potentially authoritarian action THAT delivers to people, because war can be used to justify anything. But, of course, that’s my own fear-based hypothesis. Collective stories incite personal ones and vice versa.

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    1. Totally. I am increasingly fascinated by the degree to which our false sense of self is a product of the collective stories we have been exposed to over our lifetimes. Makes you realise how important it is to manage the quality of the input!

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