How you fell into that rut…

It’s August — harvest season on the family’s wheat farm. After a quarter century on the farm, I have some experience driving a harvest truck, the trucks that carry grain from the field to the silo.

This year, our truck drivers are all young (ages 15 to 18) and inexperienced. It fell to me to be the mentor and spend some time riding with each driver, trying to teach them good habits and instill good decision-making abilities.

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You may be wondering, “How hard can it be to drive a truck?” Well, to be frank, more difficult than you realize. Not only is the agricultural setting intimidating, but our unique environment also adds to the difficulty — we are hillside farmers.

Large, steep hills greatly complicate truck driving. They make rolling a truck a genuine concern. They also stall engines and snap drive lines. They make tires spin out in the middle of a climb. And given the variable contours of our fields, the hills create ditches — some deep, some shallow, some that will high center your truck, some that will suck the rear tires into the mud, some so rough that you crack your exhaust crossing them.

This is the point of mentoring. All of this can be a bit overwhelming — especially if you’re not old enough to have a driver’s license.

But after spending a few days riding around with our three young drivers, I realized they all displayed a similar behavior: following the ruts.

Driving through stubble, you naturally leave tracks behind. But the more you cross stubble, the more flattened and apparent the tracks become. If trucks follow the same route through a patch of stubble, an obvious “road” is developed — a truck road.

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Our three young drivers started to develop the tendency to follow these tracks. That was fine with me, especially given how rough the fields were this year. Following an established track where ditches can be filled in makes things go smoother, literally.

However, this tendency to follow tracks became too much of a habit for these drivers… it became the standard by which they drove in the fields — they followed tracks everywhere. This is when it became a problem. Not all tracks were ones that should’ve been followed. But they all three continually tried to follow tracks, to the point that they weren’t willing to pass each other in the field because the truck road wasn’t wide enough. There were literally acres of stubble, the very picture of wide open spaces, with more than enough room for a deep breath of fresh air and certainly more than enough room for two trucks to pass each other… but they wouldn’t leave the tracks.

Given the years of experience I have, this made no sense to me. It took a few days to realize what these guys were actually doing: outsourcing their decision-making.

These guys were all aware of their greenhorn status and didn’t want to make any mistakes (especially when I was with them). So, to them, the safer option was to follow the tracks rather than make their own decisions, decisions that could potentially be wrong.

However, the tracks weren’t always the best route. But that didn’t stop them from trying to stick with it until I called them out and tried to show them why a different direction was better. But every bad decision to follow the tracks flattened the stubble that much more and developed the truck road that much further.

Some behaviors we outgrow… but I’m noticing that there are some behaviors that are scalable — just because we don’t notice them anymore doesn’t necessarily mean that we have outgrown them — we just don’t notice them.

So I have to wonder if, at some point in our lives, we all feel so inexperienced that we just follow the ruts, that we outsource our decision-making to the collective’s habits. This might not always be a bad thing, but what if the rut we choose to follow is a bad one to follow?

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Now, the real irony of this behavior was that the truck drivers didn’t seem to remember how these tracks were initially laid down. It was they that made the tracks — but once the tracks were down, they wouldn’t hesitate to follow along. Even if they had made a bad decision in their initial route choice, once the tracks were down they forgot about it… and wouldn’t hesitate to follow those tracks later on.

If it’s possible that we occasionally outsource our decision-making to an established track, isn’t it possible we make this behavior a habit? And isn’t it conceivable that because of this habit, the rut we fall into is the one that we ourselves have dug?

So, have you ever outsourced your decision making? Have you fallen into any ruts?

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About Nathan Doneen

I'm currently a mid-20s post college grad trying to find my own niche in the world. I studied biology and environmental science when in school and have since started studying philosophy and theory of mind while trying to write in the midst of it all.

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