Five Lessons I Learned from Failing My Driving Test

Thoughts on friendship, self-belief, and our ability to move on from disappointment

Zoe Alderton
Jan 21 · 6 min read
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Photo by Cory Bouthillette on Unsplash

I learned to drive a little later in life than most. I was 33 when I sat behind a wheel of a car for the first time.

I think I fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to driving. I’m not a terrible driver. I’m responsible and observant. I care about keeping myself and others safe. I’m also not a magnificent driver. Moving a car didn’t come naturally, and my spacial awareness leaves something to be desired. It’s probably better for us all if you don’t ask me to reverse park.

Now, here’s something I’m admitting publicly for the first time: I failed my first driving test.

To be honest, I’m not used to failure. I left high school with a grade in the 90s, I finished my undergraduate degree with first class honours, and I passed my PhD first go with only spelling mistakes to correct. I’m more of a black sheep than a perfectionist, so there were blips on the path. But outright failure of a test just wasn’t part of my life.

I expected much the same when I turned up to my test on a cloudy Thursday morning with my driving instructor’s sensible car. I felt a little disoriented because I normally give assessments rather than take them, but small jitters are normal when your performance is under the microscope.

I drove around the half-hour course, stopped where I should have, avoided hitting a pedestrian who ran out in front of me, and kept my speed nice and slow.

I really did think I would pass. I had great driving lessons from a qualified instructor who I loved, I was good at memorising road rules, and I generally do well when I try hard.

I failed.

The testing officer was apologetic about my disappointing results, but she made it clear that I hadn’t done too well. I moved around another car without indicating, I tapped the gutter as I was parking, and I moved off an exit ramp with a 50 speed limit at 52. My biggest problem was failing to do head checks when I moved within the large lanes of my home town. They all added up to a mandated fail.

I went home and cried in bed for three hours straight. I decided to sell my car. I made other people drive me around for a week because I was too scared to get behind the wheel again. I felt like I didn’t even deserve my learners permit.

I’m not the kind of person who just bounces back and carries on. A person like that probably isn’t sitting around Googling ‘depression after failing driving test’. Nevertheless, I have learned a few useful lessons from my experience:

The appealing thing about staying at home and never taking risks is that no one outside can reject you. No one can say ‘no’ if you never ask the question. As someone with anxiety, this appeals! But the problem is that no one will say ‘yes’ either.

I put off learning to drive for years because I thought I’d be bad at it. In fact, my high school friends found the idea of me ever driving comical. I was, in all honesty, voted ‘least likely to get her license’ in our high school year book.

You know those friends who laughed at the idea of my driving? Yeah, those people weren’t really friends. I’ve been lucky to discover the real meaning of that word as I’ve grown older.

My best friend listened to me as I cried hysterically on the phone, then had flowers delivered to my house to cheer me up. I told a small group of people on Facebook about my ordeal. Rather than judging me, they shared stories of failing their own tests or said comforting things to try and remind me that I generally do pretty well in life.

The fact that people I care about will read this article is a little unappealing. I’d prefer that they saw me as a successful person rather than one with doubtful driving skills. To be honest, passing first go is more in keeping with the image I want to project. But the cool thing about genuine friends is how they don’t really care about your superficial image or your vanity. They care about the human behind it all. Me failing my driving test is just one little fact amongst many. It’s not the defining feature of how anyone important sees me.

Yes, even when you don’t believe in yourself. Especially when you don’t believe in yourself! My family were the first people to hear about my failure. I thought they would be disappointed in me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They were disappointed for me and resolved to get me back on track. My parents drove with me for two hours every day as I perfected the test route and my maneuvers. Aside from the patience and dedication they showed to their adult child, it made me realise how much faith they had in my ability to crack the code and pass this exam.

My driving instructor was also enthusiastic about my ability to do better next time. She said to keep practicing, concentrate hard on the rules, and stay focussed on the goal of being a safe, independent driver. She helped me to turn what I saw as devastating criticism into just a list of stuff to consider for next time. In her eyes, all I really needed to do was turn my head further before turning my wheel. That’s not the end of the world.

The pain I felt after failing was deep and sincere. There will always be a part of me that remembers the sadness, embarrassment, and frustration that hit me. There will always be a tinge of regret that I didn’t pass first go. I may always be a little jealous of those who did and wonder why I don’t match up to them. I’m more inclined to dwell than to move on. But life carries on regardless.

The more time that passes, the more peace I feel. Every day brings its own challenges and triumphs, which temper what’s come before them. This gives us perspective and lets us move on.

I’m not going to lie. Failure might not be the end of the world, but success sure is great!

I took a second driving test, far more nervously this time. I was shaking. I could hardly swallow. When my foot slipped off the break at the top of a tricky intersection, I was sure I had blown it.

I was wrong. My testing officer greeted me with a pile of P-plates. I didn’t believe it until he said “congratulations, you passed”. This time, I lost one mark for slipping on the break and one for missing a head check (damn it!).

I’m truly proud of how I did in that second test. I worked really hard, as did everyone who supported me to keep going. Maybe I wouldn’t be so proud if I had passed the first time. I might have taken success for granted, yet again, rather than seeing it as a reward for hard and careful work.

If you found this article because you’re crying over a moment of failure or struggling to forgive yourself for doing badly, I hope it is a window into a future where things get a little better.

One set-back should never be the end of your journey.

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Zoe Alderton

Written by

PhD in Religion and Economics communications specialist by day. Angsty writer by night.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Zoe Alderton

Written by

PhD in Religion and Economics communications specialist by day. Angsty writer by night.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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