When I was learning to drive a car, someone told me that it was safer to keep your eyes locked on the furthest bit of road you can see. I remember thinking that advice didn’t make much sense. That point way up there where the road curves up into the forest? That’s not where I need to be focused, what about the part of the road that’s right in front of me?
Over time though, I started hearing more support for the theory. In Garth Stein’s wonderful novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, he writes that “Your car goes where your eyes go … The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”
Then, a couple of years ago, the county repaved Ranch Road 12, which leads out of our valley and north to the town of Dripping Springs. It’s an eleven-mile journey on twisty two-lane road with lots of elevation changes. And there are rumble strips, two yellow lines at the center and a single white one on the outside edge of edge of each lane. It’s hard to stay inside those lines and from my front porch, a mile east of the road, I can hear sometimes when a car or pickup runs over those strips.
So, I decided to try keeping my eyes focused on the farthest bit of road ahead and see what happened. To my surprise, after two trips I could stay between the lines the whole way up and back. There was only one section, a tight but fast turn that cuts the view ahead to about four car lengths, where I would sometimes hear my tires touch the strips.
Looking far down the road made me more accurate in the short distance in front of me. And I noticed that even without taking my eyes off the long view, I was more aware of things in the middle distance, a deer grazing on the side of the road or a car drifting close to the center line.
What caused my attention to expand like that when my eyes were fixed on a distant point?
And there was one more thing: race drivers have to be looking at the farthest point of vision ahead, but they also need to see who’s coming up behind them so they can defend their position if someone tries to pass. How do you do that if your eyes are focused far ahead?
What I discovered was interesting. A quick glace in the mirrors as I start out and those three mirrors are fixed in my peripheral vision. Without taking my focus off the long view, I can also register everything going on back there, from the color of the car coming up behind me to its blinkers flashing as he slows to make a right turn.
So, focusing on the long view changes how I experience the short view. But it does one more thing that I wasn’t expecting: it focuses and quiets my mind. My inner chatter shuts off and I’m only thinking about what’s out front and what’s around me.
That made me think about this question: what can this teach us about life and leadership?
To find out, I started discussions with colleagues and clients to see how this experience works. How can this “thinking short and long” improve our focus on, say, the year ahead? And how can we use this to improve our performance at making the right choices of where to put our attention?
Here’s where our thinking is now.