Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Obstacle Race

27 Mar 2011

A bit over 2 years ago, I wrote a blog post on setting goals and why it sometimes made no sense to set them. Today, I'd like to talk about executing on a goal I had set for myself nearly 3 months ago.

In December 2010, just shortly before I left for my trip to Dubai and India, I embarked on a multi-month goal to legally drive a zipcar in San Francisco. For the uninformed, zipcar is an amazing and first of its kind car-sharing program found in cities across the United States as well as in Vancouver, Toronto and London, UK. Zipcar let's you rent cars and pay for them by the hour. It is an extremely useful service, especially in cities, and the prices are quite affordable.

It had been a while since I had set multi-month goals for myself. In the spring of 2008, I had laid the groundwork for a multi-month goal that would enable me to graduate with a double option, both of which were strictly optional to my degree, at a time and place when even a single option was considered largely ludicrous. In February 2009, I had set a multi-month goal of making it through a semester of school with 8.75 courses which I accomplished successfully later that Fall. In November 2009, I had set another multi-month goal of working full-time either at Facebook or Zynga after graduation which I also accomplished successfully. In February 2010, I had set yet another multi-month goal of spending 2 months in Europe and exploring as many cities as possible which I also accomplished rather successfully.

Multi-month goals can get very exciting at times. They often serve as a purpose and direction in life, and frequently end up being my reason for getting out of bed every morning. Multi-month goals also give me a very deep sense of satisfaction and self-esteem upon accomplishment that doesn't just wear off in a couple of days. The planning, the groundwork, the analysis and optimization of said plan, the execution, the obstacles encountered, the learning and experience gained while executing and dodging such obstacles, the final denouement, and the eventual delight and comfort of successfully attaining the multi-month goal — it all makes for a very blissful experience full of life-joy.

It had been 10 months since my last multi-month goal. I was starting to get a bit antsy. So this time around, after realizing how useful the zipcar service was, my multi-month goal became to drive a zipcar, say to the airport and back to pick up a friend for example.

The first step to accomplishing any goal is to compute the dependency tree. Driving a zipcar was just the final goal, the end-point that would allow me to mark the goal as resolved. The final goal needs to be broken down into several sub-goals which in turn need to be broken down into even more sub-sub-goals, and so on until the problem is reduced to a list of simple primitives and basic action items. The end result is a big dependency tree whose leaves tell you what needs to be done first. The dependency tree makes a big multi-month goal seem more palpable and gives you the confidence you need to make you believe that you can actually accomplish your goal, since your big goal is now only a list of small tasks that you can act on quite easily.

The beauty of a dependency tree is that it implements the composite pattern rather well. Each mega goal, which might be a composition of several sub-goals, can be treated exactly the same as a sub-goal itself. Consequently, the strategies to resolve multi-month goals are practically the same as those for resolving multi-week goals and even multi-year goals if you'd like.

So here, let's go through the exercise of building the dependency tree for my own multi-month goal together. In order to drive a zipcar, I needed to have a valid and activated zipcard. To get a zipcard, I needed to apply for one online at zipcar.com. To get my application approved, I needed a driver's license. Did I have an American driver's license? No. Did zipcar accept non-American driver's licenses? Well, let's find out. A bit of quick research showed that zipcar did in fact accept Canadian drivers licenses issued by British Columbia. Did zipcar accept novice (the equivalent of G2 in Ontario) driver's licenses? They do in other provinces, but not in BC. My British Columbia licensed class had to be 560 or lower in order to be eligible. What class was I? 700.

Setback numéro un.

Darn, now what? Did this mean I couldn't drive a zipcar? Well, not immediately, but if I got a full driver's license here from California, I'd be able to get my zipcar application approved. Thankfully, California did not have a graduated licensing program like British Columbia and Ontario. In California, it's just one written test and one road test to get a full license for 4 years.

Unfortunately, getting a California license implied that I needed to deal with the DMV, the Department of Motor Vehicles — the licensing agency here in California. I had heard horror stories of incredibly horrible customer experience trying to deal with the DMV. So I very well knew what I was getting into.

Regardless, my resolve to drive a zipcar was strong. I came up with a new sub-goal: Obtain a California driver's license.

The dependency tree for the above sub-goal is as follows. In order to obtain a California driver's license, I needed to pass a behind-the-wheel road test. To be eligible for a behind-the-wheel road test, I needed to pass a written test. In order to do a written test, I had to take an afternoon off to go to the DMV, fill out the forms, prove my legal status and residency in the country, wait a long time in the line, take a photo, take the test, and make sure I got at least 24/30 of the questions right.

After I got into work that day, I realized I needed my passport which was back home. I also realized that the DMV only accepted cash and check, no credit cards. I didn't have much cash on me, and since I went home to get my passport, I picked up a blank check as well anyway. Had I forgotten either my passport or the check before heading to the DMV, I would've had to come back home empty handed except for having poured 2.5 hours down the drain.

Not having my passport with me is what I like to call a "spof", in the parlance of plan execution. A spof, which stands for single point(s) of failure, is any situation that causes the entire plan to fail forcing me to switch to Plan B, or to re-group back home so I can execute Plan A again. Without a passport at the DMV, the sub-goal of passing the written test would've immediately halted, and I would've had to come again another day. Any plan has a number of spofs built into it, and it is imperative that every single spof in the plan is identified before-hand and taken care of as early as possible.

The biggest hurdle to passing the written test was that I hadn't read the driver's handbook. Setback numéro deux. The last handbook I had read was back in July 2005, nearly 6 years ago, and that was the BC edition. Being the most insipid book there is out there, I didn't want to read the California handbook again, so I just did a quick Flash-based tutorial and some practice questions online and winged the rest. I managed to pass somehow with just one incorrect answer. After years and years of dedicated training and specialization in multiple-choice tests, the CA DMV written test was a no-brainer. Most of the questions could be answered just by being smart and eliminating 3 out of 4 bad answers without having a single clue of what the right answer actually might be.

After I had passed the written test, I immediately tried to book an appointment at the DMV for a behind-the-wheel road test since I was there. But they only let you book appointments online and via phone. I tried to book online the minute I got back to work, but the online system said it was unavailable for me, i.e. broken. I figured the DMV was under-funded and did not have the resources to fix their website after it broke. I tried calling them and was put on a 30-minute hold. Setback numéro trois.

It was at this point in time that I was ready to give up. All this effort just for a zipcar? Didn't seem worth it. Especially since I had 4-5 good friends who already had zipcars that I could call up anytime. I could still legally drive rental cars with my BC license. Just not a zipcar.

But giving up wasn't one of my strong suits. A goal was a goal, and I'd do anything to accomplish it. Also, once I had given up on a goal now, it makes it all-the-more easier to give up on goals in the future on the smallest setback. Like a game of Jumanji, the only way to win is to either not play, or to never give up once you've started. I chose the latter route.

I finally got through to the DMV and managed to schedule an appointment date a month from my call. The next dependency for a road test was that I needed a car with insurance coverage. I couldn't use my friends' cars because of the insurance requirement. Most of them had zipcars anyways. I couldn't rent a zipcar for the test, well because I was doing the test only to be able to rent a zipcar in the first place. So the only way out was to rent a car from a rental agency.

Now if you told a rental agency you were renting a car to do a driving test, they'd most likely deny you a car even if you had a valid non-learner, non-temporary driver's license from another country. Even if you found a company that would let you rent cars for driving tests, that too after 10 phone calls and lots of waiting as the agents confirmed with their managers, you'd likely have to pay a hefty premium in addition to the stupid under-age surcharge. So I conjured up my story-telling skills from high school to cook up a story about how I was going to pick up my mom from the airport but then her plane got significantly delayed so I had to return the car earlier without going to the airport.

The worst part was when the agents started to educate me about the usefulness of zipcars for such short appointments. I had to sit there and pretend I knew absolutely nothing about the zipcar service. Pretending, unlike giving-up, was definitely one of my stronger suits.

So I finally got to the San Francisco DMV on the day of the test with my rental car, do the paper work, take more photos, wait in line for my examiner, and within 5 minutes of the test, I commit a standard lane violation spof and fail it. Setback numéro quatre. It was all a combination of miscommunication between the examiner and me, horrible weather and rain conditions, consequent low visibility of lane markers on the already terrible SF roads, bad mood of the examiner due to said horrible weather, unclear and last-minute instructions by the examiner, my inability to process instructions correctly in the presence of power-holding pugnacious authority, and a wee bit of anxiety on my part since it had been 7 months since I had last driven. Somehow, I managed to piss off my examiner by saying he should've given me a bit more advanced noticed for instructions involving lane changes, which caused him to storm out of the car furiously. Nobody likes blame.

Sitting alone in the car, no one to speak to, rain pounding my windshield, I was ready to give up on my goal and everything I had done so far towards it. It was just so easy to give up. There was no guarantee I would pass the test again the second time especially since the DMV examiners are so picky about everything and hate their jobs so much due to its inherent risky nature and their direct exposure to horrible weather conditions. They were just looking for every excuse to fail you. Plus the DMV got more money each time they failed someone.

But giving up was just not in my blood. Having been trained in the fields of perseverance and discipline for upwards of 20 years by some of the best of the best, I decided to book another road test appointment on my bus back to work. The earliest date available was a month from my call and the online system was broken so I couldn't even periodically check for cancellations to move my date ahead like I did back in 2007. This was my last chance. If I failed the test the second time for whatever reason, I wouldn't be able to book another road test without doing a second written test first, since my temporary license was due to expire shortly after my second road test.

On the day of the second road test, I went through the motions of renting out my car, this time from a different Enterprise branch, cooking up yet another story about my mom's flight being delayed, driving to and waiting in line at the DMV, and paying the test fee. Just as the pretty lady at the counter was about to OK me for the test, she threw a curve ball at me. Another spof waiting to be uncovered. She said I needed a letter from the rental agency that it was okay for me to use the car for tests. That was my oh shit moment. Setback numéro cinq. Obviously, I didn't have a letter. They didn't ask for it the first time. I was counting on them being happy enough with the rental contract.

Breathe. That was the only thing I wanted to do then.

My heart raced. I had to think of something quick! My brain was churning. All the heavy-duty processing cylinders I had developed by doing MATH 212, MATH 239, MSCI 331, CO 370, and MSCI 700 over the last 5 years were fired up instantly. I spontaneously made up some BS about how no one mentioned anything about a letter when I made the appointment. I even took a chance and made up some stuff about how the DMV website had no instructions on bringing a letter.

The lady heard my reasons and got up to head towards the back. I knew it! She was going to call Enterprise to find out if it was okay for their car to be used for driving tests. And of course, the rental agents were most likely going to say no to cover their asses in case something went wrong. My heart was throbbing now. One small setback, and there goes my plan out the window. I wouldn't find a more appropriate example of a spof. I would've wasted $80 and 3 hours of effort in return for nothing.

Fortunately, the lady just went back to chat with her manager about the situation and came back with an okay. Phew! I heaved a euphoric sigh of relief. This almost seemed like a "good cop, bad cop" routine, except in reverse! No phone calls were made. The only call was a close call.

After waiting in line again for my examiner inside the car for what seemed like an eternity, I finally got to the front of the line. I was really close to starting the test. This was it! But then my heart started to race again. I could see him walk towards me through the windshield. It was my examiner. And it was the same Chinese examiner as last time! The very same guy who stormed out of my car because I tried to assign blame to him. What were the odds? There were at least 5 examiners available that morning and it just had to be him, didn't it?

I was so screwed. I hated him. He hated me. There was no way I could drive as perfectly as he wanted me to in such a tense and heated situation. My heart was pounding now. This was going to be a bad day once again. Murphy was having a field day with me. The examiner came up to my window and asked me for my papers. Good, he didn't recognize me. I didn't expect him to. It had been a month already. He seemed to be in a better mood today. Maybe because the weather was so much nicer and it wasn't raining. He took one look at my papers and said he couldn't be my examiner since he had been my examiner once already. I had no clue how he knew, but damn, what a relief from the cliff-hanger situation.

In a few minutes, I got assigned a different examiner. Thankfully, she was female. She seemed a lot nicer and not nearly as arrogant and power-hungry as my previous examiner. I asked her how she was doing, and she calmly ignored my question. Darn, not a good sign. I went through the motions of the test, and she started making lots of marks on the results sheet. My heart started beating frantically once again for the umpteenth time! I was so screwed. She was clearly being extremely nit picky. Paranoia quickly overtook me. Maybe I wasn't scanning the rear view mirror frequently enough. Maybe I forgot a shoulder check. Maybe I drove on a bike lane. Maybe I didn't stop my car fully at a stop sign. Maybe I accidentally turned on my windshield viper. Oh my. So many things to worry about that you wouldn't normally worry about during regular driving!

As we finished the test, I saw what seemed like a ton of black marks on my results sheet. I knew I was done for! There was no freaking way I passed that test. There goes my zipcar dream. A lot of the errors were the same too. It had been almost 4 years since I had taken a proper road test so there was a good chance I had forgotten a few things that these examiners look for that would be classified as over-cautious in real-world driving. And it was natural for me to repeat these same "mistakes" over and over again at each of the 8 intersections we went through and have it count 8 times.

In her head, the examiner began to count the number of minor errors I had committed. She didn't look too impressed. I was allowed a maximum of 15. How many did I have? 15 on the dot. Wow, I had just passed the test. To my glee, I only had 3 unique errors. So it wasn't as bad. The hills in SF had caused me to involuntarily stop a bit ahead than where I was supposed to stop at a stop sign. That itself accounted for 6 out of 15 minor errors.

Once I got my California driver's license on paper, I finally went online, put in an application for a zipcard, and got my access card in the mail in less than 48 hours.

On Thursday, March 24 2011, nearly 15 weeks after I had formalized my goal of wanting to drive a zipcar, my friend Jon asked me if I could drive him to the airport with a zipcar to pick up his mom. I jumped at the opportunity and immediately agreed. This was the last phase of my plan. At the end of that day, my goal of driving a zipcar had been successfully accomplished.

After 5 major setbacks, and 3 months of planning, waiting, and executing, it all seemed worth it when I returned home from the airport. I no longer cared about the zipcar. It just made me incredibly happy that I had accomplished a multi-month goal that I had set for myself without giving up even once, despite all the setbacks I had encountered. This goal had been a real obstacle race, and it was an ultimate test of how many hoops I was willing to jump through before I gave up. Accomplishing my goal was a great boost to my self-esteem and to my belief that things are definitely possible if you go all in and put your heart and mind to it.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, achieving the goal is what matters. In the real world, people only care about the end result. The process, the pain, the setbacks, and the failures are all forgotten with time and soon fade into meaninglessness. But not for you. And certainly not for me. Going through the painful process of accomplishing goals will only lead us to dream of bigger and harder-to-achieve things, and make the goal acquisition process that much easier in the future. The painful process is the long-term life coach that makes us a stronger person. Everyday, everyday.


444 De Haro St., San Francisco, California
Mon, December 13th 2010, 1:30 PM PST

Multi-Month Goal #5: Legally drive a zipcar in San Francisco.


455 Bartlett St., San Francisco, California
Fri, March 25th 2011, 12:20 AM PDT

End Result of Multi-Month Goal #5: Quod Erat Demonstrandum. That which was to be demonstrated has been successfully demonstrated.

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