Lessons my Prius is teaching me

While driving to work today and trying to coax my little Toyota Prius to flip from 46.5 to 46.6 miles per gallon, I realized my car has been a great teacher, and not just about the economics of gasoline mileage. It’s actually been teaching me a lot about life.

I fell in love with the groundbreaking Prius way back in 2007 when my friend Jane Irvine showed me her new car. How I coveted that thing.

The glowing electronic display of wheels and arrows and batteries mesmerized me. I’d lose track of conversations because I was so fascinated by the real-time gas mileage display. Oh, I was so jealous. It would be another three years before I’d get my own. If I have my way, I’ll drive a Prius forever.

So here are the life lessons my car so graciously teaches:

Lesson No. 1 – Check in with yourself. Frequently. A Prius boasts a large digital display that tracks, on a momentary basis, your gas mileage. You can watch the miles per gallon rise – 25, 45, 75, 99 – and fall. Pretty soon it’s a contest with your car to see how long you can keep it running on electric power. In fact, Charlie recently drove to Washington, DC, across those Maryland mountains and racked up an average of 54 mpg. That’s called a feedback loop, by the way. That little display gives you instant feedback about how you’re driving, and as a result, you find yourself adapting your habits.

This lesson is simple: know what you value and where you’re going. Check in with yourself regularly. Is what you’re doing in line with what you know you value? Great! Keep it up. Is what you’re doing not aligned with what you value? Maybe you should pay attention to that feedback. When you check in regularly, you can be sure you’re always moving on the path with the most meaning for you in life. What can be better?

Lesson No. 2 – Rushing wastes energy, so be mindful of the moments. My Prius offers me a respectable 45 mpg on average, and I can usually negotiate about half the distance to work on electric power. Of course, that requires leisurely takeoffs at stop lights and a slow but steady speed. It also requires irritating drivers so pumped to get to work they must zip past so they can reach the light and stop just ahead of me, only to jackrabbit away once the light greens up. They waste gas. I don’t. They fixed their eyes on the destination, I actually saw the tree in bloom and the walker with the little dog, and that quirky sign. They may have gotten to work a moment or two before me, but I’m calmer. Their adrenaline is already kicking in.

When I drive slower, I not only save energy, I have more time to notice my surroundings. In fact, my fellow coach Landon Cole brought that home to me the other day. He was talking about a coaching session where he’d used the analogy of a car rushing along at 150 miles an hour. What his client decided was that when you go 150 miles an hour, you can’t even enjoy your life unfolding around you.

Perfect. Lately I’ve been learning (maybe re-learning) to look around and enjoy the ride, which means I no longer rush, whether I’m in a car or going about my day. I save energy. Mine. And now that I’m enjoying the moments more, I even recall times of mindfulness long forgotten – like when I was a student walking home from school along the same old route. Every once in a while, I would suddenly notice a house that I’d never noticed before, although of course it had always been there. I still recall the eye-opening thrill of that new discovery.

Today, being mindful of my driving has helped me once again become more mindful of my moments.

Lesson No. 3 – Stay flexible. You have to love a great turning radius in a car, and the Prius delivers. Negotiating a lot of U-turns recently drove home to me how smartly my Prius nipped right in without violating another lane or forcing me to stop, back up, or correct my course. Wow. It was so easy and flexible. It set me to thinking … negotiating life requires flexibility, too. Like a Prius, those of us who remain adaptable and flexible – you might even say resilient – weather those lane changes and the quick swerves, sudden stops, and U-turns that inevitably pepper our lives. Here I go, zipping merrily along, only to discover I’m heading the wrong way – whether that’s in a car or in a career or in a relationship – so I need to make a U-turn. In a Prius, it’s pretty easy. In our lives, well, the more flexible you stay, the easier it will be. So stay flexible. Stay resilient.

Lesson No. 4 – Know yourself. Several years ago I was trying to decide whether to apply for a job that offered more money and a set of duties slightly off-kilter from my skills and interests, but the chance to take the “usual” career development path. I was really torn, because I loved the work I did. It had heart and purpose. What it didn’t do, however, was fit the notion of the “accepted” job title for promotability. It was a tough choice for me, although friends lauded it as the natural next career step.

That weekend I took part in a coach training session where we studied “balance,” a technique that includes perspectives and goal setting. I was conflicted about “my career path,” so my fellow trainees were helping me find different perspectives. It wasn’t until one gave me the imagery of an auto mall – where I could choose any vehicle – that I instantly resolved my issue.

“Oh, that’s easy,” I said. “A Prius, because it’s simply the right car for the right reas…” My voice trailed off. “The right car for the right reasons,” I said, slowly. “Oh, wow.” The enormity of what I’d said was sinking in. I knew exactly what was right for me. The Prius represented individuality and the affirmation that my career path is uniquely mine, not “the usual” path. I would make my own way and carve my own path. I will live the life with heart and soul, infinitely more important than choosing what others say is “the logical next step.” A decision has never been more clear for me.

What the Prius represented was the right car for the right reasons, happily unique. It was a metaphor for my life, my journey, and my own validation. I knew myself better in that moment than I ever had before.

So my favorite Prius lesson is this: Know yourself and be comfortable in your own skin. Ultimately, that’s what really matters.

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