The parable of the parallel parking students.

Three students had recently celebrated their 16th birthdays and had begun learning to drive. They had each become proficient at most aspects of operating a motor vehicle. They had memorized the most common rules of the road and the meanings of street signs. They had learned to how to perform right, left, and three-point turns. They could park well enough in parking lots and they could back out of their space safely. They could even handle highway driving, including merging, changing lanes, and passing slower cars.

But the one element that all three students struggled with was parallel parking. Their driving instructors had showed them how it was done, and they read descriptions of it in their driving manuals, but it remained an elusive ability.

The first student complained that parallel parking was stupid and pointless, and did not see why it was required to get a driver’s license. He knew he needed to get a driver’s license so he could get a good job. So, although it struck him as a waste of time, he acknowledged that the instructor and examiner were going to force him to do it and he begrudgingly decided that he would learn to parallel park just well enough to pass his exam — and then he would never have to do it again.

The second student tried to parallel park, but could not seem to manage even after her instructor explained the basic technique several times. First, she claimed that there must be something wrong with the instructor’s method. When her instructor noted that many other students had learned to do it the same way, she decided that it must be the car that was the problem. The steering wheel was too stiff and the wheels didn’t turn sharply enough. Also, the bumper stuck out too far. When her instructor explained that this was the same car that all his students used, she decided that the parking spaces on the city streets must be too small for most people to use. She exclaimed that it wasn’t fair that her instructor was trying to make her park in these spaces. She was so frustrated that she and her parents even wrote a letter to the city council to complain about the inadequate parking space dimensions in the city.

At first, the third student struggled just as much as the other two. But, instead of dismissing the ability to parallel park as irrelevant like the first student, or blaming her difficulty on external factors as the second student had, she decided that she simply needed more practice. Soon, she was able to park well enough to pass her test, but she figured that if the instructor spent time teaching how to parallel park and the driving exam included parallel parking, then it must actually be a worthwhile skill to have. Her instructor was happy to provide pointers as she continued to work on her parking skills.

Years passed, and the first student had long since forgotten what his driving instructor had taught him. He had passed his driving exam, but he always avoided parallel parking, often driving around the block several times looking for several empty spaces adjacent to each other. He was not comfortable parking on the other side of the street, and he disliked driving in new cities or in areas with traffic. He did not see this as a problem, because he had simply learned to work around his inability. However, whether he realized it or not, his aversion to parallel parking did sometimes prevent him from doing things that he might have liked to do.

The second student also passed her exam. She had complained vigorously about the first two spaces in which the examiner requested that she demonstrate her parallel parking proficiency. The first was not a fair test because it was on a hill. The second was also unfair because it was on a street without clearly marked parking spaces. Finally, the exasperated examiner found a space that she considered suitable, and she managed to park well enough to complete the exam. Like the first student, she never developed any skill in parallel parking and she avoided it whenever the poorly designed city streets did not afford a proper amount of space for her to park.

The third student passed her driving exam without any difficulty. In time, she became very comfortable with parallel parking, even in relatively small spaces, on hills, on busy streets, and on both sides of the street. Soon she did not even need to think about the technique that she had been shown because it had become part of her general skill set. The prospect of parallel parking did not make her nervous, and it imposed no limits on her ability to go where she wanted to go. If asked, she would surely say that she was glad that she had taken it upon herself to improve her skills, and that indeed parallel parking had proven a useful ability to have.

The only problem, she might add, is that so many other drivers seem incapable of doing it properly for whatever reason.

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