How To Terrify Yourself
Traumatizing and uplifting lessons from learning stick shift in the big apple
If you’re always making sure you’re not getting in anyone else’s way... If you have an extremely sensitive radar for being judged… If you carry yourself with a confidence that comes from only doing things you’re already good at…
Learn to drive stick shift in Manhattan as an adult.
As people who know me can tell you, I don’t sweat. As in, my threshold for physically perspiring is extremely high (I also get cold very easily so maybe those are connected). After my two stick shift lessons over the past week, however, my lower back was absolutely soaked.
Why Learn Stick Shift At All?
To set the stage a bit: I have always wanted to be able to drive a stick shift. There’s something extremely cool about it to me. Same goes for riding a motorcycle (cue the alarm bells for my future in-laws). It’s a man and machine type thing. These machines respond only to what you do, rightly or wrongly. It’s why I loved go-karting around a track at 45mph, leaning hard into turns, wondering where the grip was going to break. It’s why my Dad gave me the perfect 16th birthday present of BMW driving school down in Spartanburg, SC. It’s why I chose to drive over 140mph back in 2011. It’s understanding the tools you’re working with. It’s finding your own personal risk limit as well as the limits of the machine itself.
There is another, even more vain reason, to learn stick shift: a vintage Fiat convertible will just so happen to be at our upcoming wedding in Italy, and you must be out of your mind if you think I’m going to endure the never-ending ridicule for just sitting in a car pretending to drive it and not actually knowing how. Me, that Fiat, and my future wife are definitely going on a drive.
Where Do You Even Take Lessons These Days?
When I finally decided to take action on my driving education, I realized finding an opportunity to learn was harder than it seemed. If you ask anyone older what they did growing up they’ll give you a completely unhelpful “oh I just used my neighbor’s car and figured it out.” I’m not sure how applicable that is in today’s world, and it’s definitely not a thing in NYC. Also rental cars in the US are all automatic, and renting a vintage car is expensive and probably a bad idea.
As it turns out there is a driving school in Murray Hill that still offers stick shift lessons on a 1995 Honda Civic Coupe. Vroom Vroom baby! The instructor actually said that he’s seen a pickup in manual lessons as people go more and more to Europe. (That’s actually the third reason I wanted to learn manual – European automatics are almost double the rental price of stick shifts. It’s a perfect way to gouge Americans.)
Learning On The Job
I showed up nervous but excited. The meetup spot answered my first question right off the bat: “where in the hell do you learn how to drive in NYC?” Turns out, you do endless loops around Stuyvesant Town because it’s super quiet and there’s almost never traffic. Gary, the instructor, was a complete cowboy that was far too trusting. After 10 minutes of prelim talk and getting used to the fact that my left foot is now essential to making the car go, we were doing loops around Stuy Town in first gear. Only 20 minutes later, we were on 19th street in the chaos that is people jumping out in front you, sudden stops, quick accelerations, and impatient trucks behind you. Gary was all sink or swim, even though in this case “sink” meant “get into a car accident.”
As context, stick shift basically takes the automatic driving experience and says “we’re gonna need your help at pretty much every step”. Turning on the car, starting to move, switching each gear up and down, and not rolling down hills backwards can no longer be taken for granted. Your left foot on the clutch is the key to all of it. The engine is running, and you’re using the clutch to decide if you want to connect the wheels to it.
To make it even more confusing, you can connect it too much or too little. Remember those automatic pencil sharpeners where if you didn’t put in the pencil enough the machine would turn on but it wouldn’t be sharpening anything yet? And if you pushed it too hard the whole thing would shut down? Imagine that, but with a 3,000 pound car - and that’s just the process to go from 0 mph to 1 mph. You miss the sweet spot connecting the clutch and your whole car just turns right off - doesn’t matter if you’re in a parking spot or in the middle of the intersection.
Sorry! My Bad! One Sec! Please Stop Honking!
As I said before, this is a nightmare for a confident adult. You are 32 years old, in a car, doing a thing - driving - that everyone around you assumes you know how to do. In fact, you think you’re pretty damn good at it. Except now all the rules have changed. You’re a beginner. You’re at a stoplight, the light turns green, and instead of pushing the accelerator, you’re trying to make sure you’re working the clutch just right. Cars are honking behind you because it’s been 5 seconds and you’re only just starting to crawl forward. Or you’ve stalled, had to restart the car, and now the pressure to successfully do the thing you just failed at has grown exponentially.
You are battling your own expectations for your own performance, adding the in-the-moment judgment of everyone else around you, all the while reminding yourself that you’re learning something new.
Plus, there is the chance that you actually do get into a fender bender. Nowhere is this more likely than on a hill. Automatic cars don’t roll backwards. They stay where they are and wait for you to hit the gas. On hills, manuals need to be convinced to stay put, and need even more convincing to move forward. Do it wrong, and you roll back and hit the car behind you.
Cowboy Gary didn’t seem worried about any of this when he told me to take a left up 37th St. I hit the top of the hill and BAM!, red light. BAM!, new Ford F150 rides right up on my bumper. BAM!, my mind cycles frantically trying to remember what Gary had said about emergency brakes, hanging on the clutch, using the normal brake, and when to hit the accelerator. Light turns green, I think I close my eyes and pray whatever combination of pedals and brakes I use works out. We pull forward with no rollback at all. Phew. Gary tells me he hasn’t heard me breathe in over two minutes.
After four hours, I had the hang of it. Highways, parallel parking, hills - I had checked the box on all of them. I had endured learning in public, specifically a New York City public that is notoriously unforgiving. I learned quickly because I had to.
When you’re younger, everyone expects you to not be good at something and you are constantly being put in new situations you haven’t seen before. As we get older, that happens less and less. We have the autonomy to choose to avoid those new situations, opting to stick with the familiar. Coming out the other side of my driving lessons, there was a newfound appreciation and desire for new situations.
The more you learn new things, the less daunting learning new things becomes. The more you successfully go from nervous and not knowing anything to being capable, the more your confidence grows that you know you can get there in the end. Strip away your own judgment and that of others, and your opportunities all of the sudden get much more interesting.