The Last Trabi: My Fearless Failure

Trabi Berlin.JPG

Oh, the shortsightedness of people who espouse fearlessness. Especially when you find yourself in a fearlessness team building exercise and you keep stalling out on a major Berlin street at rush hour because you can’t get the clutch of your 40-year-old, East German Trabi car into second gear. 

Horns blare, BMWs cut you off, bicyclists appear out of nowhere. Fraulein, what are you doing? Get off the road.

I freeze in fear. How was it that I was driving this crapbox of a car for the past 10 minutes and now I am paralyzed, unable to move from 1st to second to third to oops, stop for a red light, don’t hit the bicyclists, and back to first and oh shit we’re stalled again. And, oh the crappy brakes. Will someone plow into us? Mein Gott, I’ve got two people in the car who are parents of young children.

A half an hour earlier 100 people from the company offsite were in a parking lot, dividing up into small teams of three, with one of the three volunteering to drive an old Trabi. To where we did not know. Oh, the fun of team building excursions.

Fearlessly volunteering for a team building exercise

Remembering how much I loved driving my first car, a red Fiat 128 with an amazing sound system and quirky stick shift, I volunteered to be the driver. How hard could it be?

Angela, Todd and I get in the car, me in driver’s seat. The jovial Trabi tour guide shows me how to work the shift. “See, one, two, up and in for three, then like this for reverse.” Not on the floor like my beloved Fiat, but on a 3-on-the-tree column shift. He points to a faded, peeling diagram on the dashboard that supposedly shows how to shift the gears. It is useless.

But I am fearless. I know how to drive a manual transmission car. I know how to drive in a crazy city. I learned how to drive in Boston. i am a Rebel at Work.

So what if it is dusk. And rush hour in a big, foreign city. And that I need to drive in this rush hour and listen to navigational instructions on an ancient car radio full of static. And that we are the last car in a long line of Trabi cars and the exhaust from the cars is engulfing us in noxious fumes we EPA babies have never experienced.  Let the fearless adventure begin!

Off we go. I’ve got this.

And then I don’t.

Stopping for red lights, bikes passing in front of the car, being in the wrong lane. The voice on our radio commanding, “Take the next right. Stay in the middle lane.”  Every traffic light, shifting, braking, engaging back into first gear, then second, then stalling in traffic. One, twice, three times. Now panicking. Throughout it all my team mates are supportive, reassuring, masking their worry, offering to drive.

The white Trabi is lost

The man in the radio comes back on, “We have lost the white Trabi. Everyone, pull over at the next intersection and we will hope that the white Trabi will catch up.”

My prefrontal cortex has shut down in fear and I can’t even get the crapbox Communist car into first.  Someone else has to drive. I pull over and Angela jumps into the back seat. I climb into the passenger seat and Todd climbs over from the backseat to the driver’s seat. It would be hilarious to see this human jungle gym if we weren’t all so rattled.

The gears grind but Todd gets our white Trabi moving, catching up with our crapbox caravan.  We’re supposed to be seeing the beautiful historic sites of Berlin as we drive around.  But our team can only focus on the Trabi.

After missing a turn, we lose the caravan. Todd bravely makes a U-turn to try to find the other Trabis being driven by our teammates, those lucky ones who seem to be easily driving, following instructions and enjoying the tour.  How are they learning about fear? Our car’s gears groan and we stop on a side street. The Trabi tour leader finds us and pulls up in his electric car.

“Ach, zee two cylinder is only catching one cylinder,” he tells us. “Do you want to take my electric car and I drive the Trabi?”  Not wanting to fail the fearless exercise, we decline. The nice Trabi tour guide reaches into our car, yanks on the clutch, and then somehow the driving is a little easier.

The voice from the radio tells the others to pull over and wait. The last white Trabi is coming.

Fifteen minutes later, like an oasis in the desert, we see a beautifully lighted restaurant and a long line of Trabis in a parking lot. It’s over. As we climb out of the car waiters serve us very good rose champagne. I drink two glasses, probably too fast.

I want my fear

At the end of the evening I tell the executive what I think about his “Be Fearless” mantra for developing a more risk-taking organizational culture. To his credit, he listens intently and with an open mind.

Telling people to “be fearless” and “fail fast” is superficial and lacks empathy.

Fear is one of the basic human emotions.  We shouldn’t deny its existence or value -- in ourselves and in others. Fear provides important data. Our desire should not be about having less fear but understanding what we can learn from our fears. 

Sometimes fear signals what we desire, motivating us to figure out what we need to do to get there.  Fear has preceded every major accomplishment in my life – saying yes to stepping off a corporate career track, saying yes to starting companies, saying yes to marriage, saying yes to becoming a mother at 40, saying yes this past summer to doing an improvisational monologue in front of an audience. Fear propelled me forward. 

Other times fear is our personal sonar system alerting us to danger, indicating what we need to learn, warning us from toxic situations, or giving us the energy to say no to commitments that sap our energy. Or that ask us to be someone we are not.

Fear gives us courage. It helps us to be fully alive and awake to the world in a way that confidence and bravery do not.

So yes, I hated that team building exercise because it made me fear FULL.

And I loved the exercise because it reminded me to ask for help, let my vulnerabilities show, and know that team mates are there to help. They want to help. 

We’re all in this together, especially when we see a Berlin city bus barreling down the street at us when we’re stuck in a stalled Trabi.