'Straighten the wheel gently' and other good advice

My mother refused to teach me to drive.

And fair enough, too: on one of the few times we drove together on my L plates, another car rear-ended us when I indicated to turn and then... didn't.

Our already strained mother–teenager relationship couldn't handle much extra pressure, let alone an insurance excess, so the task of preparing me to sit my driver's test fell squarely on my dad (with some cameo chaperone appearances by my brother, only 18 months older than me, and my best friend, whose powder-blue Toyota will always hold a special place in my heart).

Unfortunately, driving scared the absolute shit out of me.

Learning to drive on country roads seemed just as terrifying as merging into city traffic, mastering the clutch for hill starts, and successfully pulling off a reverse-parallel park. What spooked me at first was the sensation of careening out of control as soon as the vehicle moved past 80km/hr on the highway. It felt uncomfortably more like Mariokart than real life, without the option of being dropped safely back on the track if I happened to veer off a bridge or fall into empty space.

'Gently, gently,' dad would remind me if I jerked the wheel too quickly. 'You're going fast. You need to straighten up gently if you feel like you're veering off.'

I would loosen my grip on the steering wheel, take a deep breath, and try not to panic as the white lines marking the edge of the lane ripped past in a dot-dot-dash blur.

Naturally, those panicky out-of-control sensations soon passed with regular practice, but I still think about dad's advice even now, half a lifetime later.

As an all-or-nothing kind of person, it's often tempting to want to roughly resume an activity or routine if I've fallen off the so-called wagon or swerved off-course. But this intensity of expectation sometimes makes it difficult to ease back into things. If I can't walk seven kilometres today, I might think, it's hardly worth exercising at all! I haven't read a book in several months. I'd better read five chapters tonight.

This is garbage thinking.

Straighten the wheel gently, I try to remind myself. Start small. Something is better than nothing. Walk around the block just once. Read two pages. If you can't write today, fix some references. Try one sentence.

Don't yank the wheel!

It's manoeuvred me humanely out of many a rut.

Sometimes, however, I feel self-conscious about the way in which I return to these well-worn aphorisms and bits of advice.

A few years ago, inspirational quotes attracted a significant amount of quite virulent negative press. A group of Canadian scientists had conducted an experiment in which almost 300 participants were asked to rate the 'profoundness' of various statements, including some examples of gobbledygook or psychobabble, on a scale of one to five. They were also given tests to measure their cognitive ability and define their personality traits. When they crunched the data, PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook and his colleagues found a demonstrable link between 'low intelligence' and being impressed by pseudo-profound quotes.

Perhaps — living as we are through an era in which we're exposed daily to more text than ever before — Graham Greene's argument, that 'people who like quotes love meaningless generalizations', rings true. Isn't it ironic, then (and let's not mention Alanis Morissette and the 'true' meaning of irony here), that this sentence is reproduced on countless quote-collating sites and has been tweeted hundreds of times?

I'm sure we've all got that Facebook friend we've muted indefinitely to avoid the stream of #inspo posted against stock images of sunsets and mountain peaks. (They're often pursuing a wellness career after losing 20kg or ditching a bad boyfriend.) But if we can set aside our scorn for a second or two, I'm sure we could all think of a maxim or ditty that's really 'spoken to us' or to which we return on dark days or during stressful times: do you 'eat the elephant one bite at a time'? Remember that 'this too shall pass'?

Now and then, oversimplification can be a necessary balm — or a sharp tool that cuts through excess and entanglement.

In my final year of study, for example, I kept a whiteboard on my desk that said, in big Niko letters: 'Slow down. Calm down. Trust the process.'

If I could learn, once and for all, to apply this advice, I'm sure I'd be living a healthier and more peaceful life. In fact, 'slow down' on its own serves as a useful reminder. Wait half an hour before you respond to that snarky email! If you're going to be late, beating that one red light probably won't save the day!

This is why I have 'be still' tattooed on my left bicep.* It's not only an homage to my paternal grandmother's favourite hymn, but also an ever-present reminder to take a step back from thrumming busyness, overthinking, and always having to be 'on' or active. 'Be still, my soul,' the hymn commands, one of the quietest, sweetest imperatives I can think of.

Other good advice I return to, and sometimes offer others, includes:

  • Relax through pain. (My auntie told me this in my 20s when I suffered frequent migraines.)

  • Write and edit with empathy for your reader.

  • Sometimes the best way to make progress on a project, especially if you're stuck, is to take a break.

  • Double the vanilla extract in most recipes.

  • Spend more on good shoes.

  • Remember that you're a larger vessel than your thoughts and feelings: you're the sky; they're the weather passing through.

What's some good advice you live by?

*My 'be still' tattoo was done by the marvellous Pip at Lantern and Sparrow in Brisbane's Mt Gravatt.