How I got over my driving exam phobia
A case study on overcoming the imposter syndrome and becoming in control
Ok, this is embarrassing.
I’m going to announce to the world that: In the past decade I’ve failed close to eight driving road tests in total (and passed two). That is five times (to get my Hong Kong license), and three times (to get my Californian permit).
When I first started learning how to drive, I was 19. I didn’t realize I lacked the driving DNA, so I naively, and audaciously, went for the stick shift.
Oh. Never again.
And even with automatic, I failed seven more times.
At some point, I just accepted that, well, I sucked, but I wanted to do this, and I’m willing to practice to make perfect.
Two weeks before my 31st birthday, I finally did it, and I was happy.
And I vowed to write about my whole experience and personal transformation as I went through this hugely embarrassing and humiliating experience.
This is for you — if you also struggle with the driving test — or anything else in life or school or work where you feel like damn I suck at this one thing. Perhaps you are convinced, like me, that you lack the DNA for that one thing, or you’ve built up so high a mental barrier against it. And maybe you are determined to overcome it, but you feel you lack the tact. My story is for you.
I do have a note on what this experience taught me about the imposter syndrome and overcoming it. It’s at the end of this very, very long post — reserved for those who have made it through this story.
Driving exams are pretty black and white. You either pass, or you fail. It’s ruthless and unforgiving. As long as you did something stupid during the 20-minute exam, you won’t pass. The examiner mercilessly calls you out for the mistake and tells you to start over. Then you have to go back in line, wait, pay a ton of money, and do the same dance again. And–it doesn’t matter how much you’ve practiced or how good a driver you think you are during your practices — if you haven’t got a license, you are NOT a driver. You have that damned score sheet to tell you that.
I failed five times over five summers attempting to pass my Hong Kong driving exam. I finally got it in 2013, when I was 25. But I had always attributed it to some luck. The exam route was on a hilly area, and the vehicle I drove didn’t have enough horsepower to go uphill. I had always attributed that victory to the exam car I drove that couldn’t speed up even if I tried to.
I was ecstatic that I finally got a legitimate license and prayed that I would never have to go through it again. I always attributed it to luck. So you could imagine how crushed I was when I realized that a Hong Kong license was NOT transferrable to a Californian license when I relocated in 2017.
By then, I had been a four-year-old driver. My dad reassured me that after Hong Kong, getting the Californian permit would be “so easy” and since I was a “seasoned driver” (ha!) I should be able to get it in no time.
But the truth is, I wasn’t ever a frequent driver. And when I got behind the wheel in California for the first time, I wasn’t prepared at all. Rules and rhythms of the roads were so different from what I knew. In Hong Kong, signal lights typically controlled most pedestrian crossings on roads that consist of more than two lanes. I don’t recall encountering an intersection every two seconds. There weren’t as many unprotected lefts or right-turn on reds. Highways in HK had marginally wider lanes.
Everyone I knew told me that I should probably postpone my behind-the-wheel test. I wouldn’t listen. I told them and myself that I should take the test to get it over with asap, that I still had a chance of passing and if I did I would save time, and if not, I’d use the sessions as practice.
And I failed. Nothing momentous happened. I didn’t make any critical errors. The examiner didn’t stop me at any point or seize control of my wheel. When I drove back to the DMV parking lot, I thought I got it. But I didn’t. The examiner told me that I had failed the exam — I didn’t make any critical errors, but instead, I made 17 small errors, two more than what it would take to pass.
I was, of course, disappointed. I mulled over the many ways I might have passed if I hadn’t made that clunky turn or if my examiner was less harsh.
And, like any other reasonable person, I thought I’d polish up some of my driving habits, and next time I’ll make less than 15 mistakes, and I’ll get my license.
So my aunt and I went practicing. We found a block which we encircled repetitively over and over again until I had perfected my turns. I started to pick up the rhythm of intersections — I began to get the sense that it was like a game, a chessboard, a mahjong table. I made that rhythm part of my physiology.
One of the humbling things about learning how to drive and taking the driving test is that you can’t do it alone. The law won’t let you. Most endeavors in my life allowed me to go at it solo and fix myself up being closed doors, alone. But not this one. So a big thank you to my aunt and my boyfriend, who endured my constant begging for driving classes. Of course, though, the point is that one day your efforts will pay dividends. That’s what I tried to convince them of, at least.
Then I retook the exam. The whole time I thought I was crushing it until the examiner grabbed my wheel as we were driving up the commercial thoroughfare.
“Did you see that pedestrian?” I heard the examiner’s chillingly calm voice.
The yield-to-pedestrian lights were on, and a human being was crossing. I saw it, I slowed down, but I didn’t react fast enough to halt. This sort of pedestrian-right-of-way scenarios was quite rare in HK (don’t quote me on that though) — as I recalled, usually pedestrian crossings are governed by lights.
I realized that I had to practice a very deliberate motion called “Z-shaped scanning.” (Yes, in retrospect it’s horrendous that I hadn’t acquired that habit in the past four years of my driving history). My boyfriend and I went to some of the toughest streets with lots of people crossing roads where I practiced not running into them.
As I drove up and down commercial streets, I also learned to drive at a pace in which I could quickly come to a full stop if I need to without being too slow.
And I thought I’d mastered that part. I should be able to pass.
The third time I took the exam I was more than jittery — it was my last chance to take the road test before my learner’s permit would be voided, and I’d have to redo my written test to get a new one.
I practiced like crazy with my boyfriend in his car. Because my boyfriend and aunt had to work on the test date, I had no choice to but to hire an exam concierge service to take me to the exam, and it costed a ton of money.
An hour before the exam, we drove around the DMV to get me adjusted in an unfamiliar car.
The lady reassured me that I’m super ready, and she’d “go on a road trip with me any time.” And I believed her because I felt pretty confident about driving at this point. Sure, I paid her for her assistance — but when it comes to being on the passenger’s seat of a student driver, most people are pretty honest about the driver’s performance.
And the result?
I didn’t change lanes correctly the moment I got out of the DMV, and I flunked pretty much on the spot, for a tedious reason I don’t think you’d be interested to know. And the exam assistance lady was pretty shocked. So shocked, in fact, she even offered to take me to my next driving exam for pro bono.
The most frustrating thing by now was that there appeared to be no correlation between my accumulated practice efforts and the actual result. The more I tried, the worse I failed. Arguably, the first time I took the exam was the time I was closest to passing — I didn’t make any critical error at that time.
Worse still, after three traumatic failures, the image of failure was hammered into my brain. I couldn’t picture any other scenario. No matter how good I thought I was getting, I just wasn’t validated as a driver. And now I’ve used up all three chances that my first learner’s permit allowed.
People kept telling me to “think positive” and “imagine yourself passing.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. My aunt said to me that the only way to pass was to pretend the stakes were low. That was a hard thing to do considering the substantial financial cost that I had already poured into this, lest to say the effort it takes to secure an appointment.
“Well, maybe you’re not meant to do this, you should just accept it.” My mom would always deride or reprimand me for investing too much in a venture that is doomed to failure, and she always told me that I should give up.
But for me, I could not accept the scenario of living this life without being able to drive.
And I want to drive. In Hong Kong, a driver’s license is pretty much useless. Hong Kong is a tiny city, and its road systems are not integrated into mainland China’s; you need both a separate car and a separate license to drive across the border. For me having a license in the US is more than about everyday necessity, even though of course it is a big part of it. Here in California, if I have a license, I could (at least theoretically) drive to the East Coast, or even Canada or Mexico. And I wanted that feeling of boundless freedom, mobility, and autonomy.
The worst nightmare for me would be to put in all that effort and yet still die without a driver’s license… and yes, I know — it’s become some unhealthy fixation.
So, I decided to play the long game.
I sucked it up and signed up for a new written test. And I did all the practice tests that I could find online. Pretty much every single one of them, and I memorized all the answers. I told myself, if it’s going to take me 13 takes to pass my road test, I better be prepared to take the written test four times. And the confident I am with the written test material, the less stress I would have.
And the day I went to take my written test again, I was fully confident. I made sure my reaction to every question was mechanical, like a natural reflex examination in a doctor’s clinic. And it was. The moment I started my written test, I knew I would ace it because I already knew all the answers. I felt entirely in control. Ok, well, I made two mistakes, but not bad!
The next step was to train myself so that in the actual behind-the-wheel test, I would have the same “sense of control.”
This something I never felt in a performative situation where a high degree of mechanical mastery and precision had to be performed in real-time, such as piano performances. It is just something I could never do. I would also never be able to, say, play tennis in real-time.
I had a piano teacher at school who once discovered that I practiced way harder pieces when I was playing alone in practice rooms. I was unable to play those pieces with her watching at all, or in front of any living soul. The idea that no mistakes are allowed in front of a live audience terrified me and sucked all the joy of performance away. But my teacher was so excited she made it perform in a piano festival those pieces in front of an audience. I hyperventilated all morning and screwed that up in the end.
My mother, who was a piano prodigy (but a terrible driver) always enjoyed using piano playing as a matter of fact of how “if you think about what every finger is supposed to do when you are playing the piano, you are most likely to play the wrong note. If you’re just in the flow, you’ll be fine.”
I’m like, I know! And I do trip!
She wasn’t telling me anything new.
Finally, I brought this story to my therapist, who told me something useful. She said, “I’m surprised that you say you’re much more confident doing an exam paper than performing a practiced routine. In a paper, anything can happen; many unexpected questions could come your way. But if it’s something like playing a piano piece or driving, as long as you have fully mastered the craft, there are very few surprises — it’s all repetitive motion!”
She had a point — “practice makes perfect.” But the thought of performing something still terrified me when I put myself in that paranoiac headspace.
So my therapist advised me, “Go to an empty parking lot. Put your feet on the break. Keep practicing the action of –stopping– and –going–. Practice feeling like you are in full control of the vehicle.”
“Go to an empty parking lot. Put your feet on the break. Keep practicing the action of –stopping– and –going–. Practice feeling like you are in full control of the vehicle.”
In other words, practice mindfulness while driving a car, under all situations.
And I realized, that’s true — in every real-time performance situation, I always felt like the outcome determined more on luck than on my ability, no matter how much effort I put into preparing for it.
I also wasn’t preparing for my piano performances or driving exams right. Because I was so convinced that I was relying on luck, I wasn’t practicing with intentionality but was just going through motions. I decided to overhaul my entire mindset — which not to practice for the sake of practicing or even make technical improvements — but to strengthen my sense of control over the car.
That is, I just practiced telling myself I’m in control of this car the whole time I’m driving.
Then I realized that I didn’t fail my past exams because of bad luck. Whenever a driving examiner catches something you do and fails you, it will always sound “stupid” because traffic rules are in essence kindergarten knowledge, but knowing and practicing are two different things. You aren’t ready as a driver until you are well-practiced. There’s no such thing as “relying on luck” in driving. And I suspect, this idea could probably apply to many things in work and life if you look hard enough.
There are always “exam tips” out there that tell you, “Remember to eat breakfast!” “Don’t get too caffeinated!” “Sleep at 7 pm the night before!” “Avoid the rush hour!” “Get the lenient examiner!” As if every small physical/mental flux or externality could affect your chances of passing.
But the truth is, in real life, you will have to be prepared driving under all sorts of emotionally challenging situations. What if you have to send a loved one to the hospital? What if you received over the (speaker)phone while you are driving? What if an argument between passengers breaks out in the car?…
I’m not trying to be pessimistic. I’m just trying to make a point: my reason for wanting to know how to drive is because I want to use the skill as a service to others, and the whole point of obtaining a license is to add to my arsenal when it comes to handling life itself. (And of course, road trips!) So there’s no point in being a delicate driver.
2019 was somehow a challenging year when it came to booking a behind-the-wheel exam slot. I’ve been taking my exams at El Cerrito historically but having realized that it has a very mediocre pass rate, I considered doing it somewhere else, such as Daly City. But when I checked, there were no slots available anywhere else except for El Cerrito.
Due to fear and nerves, I kept postponing the exam date. I’ve decided that if I am not 100% confident in my skill, I won’t take the test. After all, there’s no point getting a license if no one trusted my driving. I measured this by the number of times I slipped up during practice. But slowly, and surely, my boyfriend appeared less nervous sitting on the passenger’s seat, I started to make fewer to no mistakes while driving, and finally, he said I was ready. After all, kids who drive much worse than I do pass the damned exam.
But I knew I was going for the overkill. I think I was getting a bit extreme because I couldn’t stand the picture of finishing another round with the examiner passing me a failed score sheet. Because it happened to me so many times, my brain became hardwired to believe that’s the only possible outcome if I repeated the motions.
When I called the driving school to make an appointment for an exam assistance service, the owner found it in the kindness of her heart to reject my business because apparently “these days the DMV was backed up.” She told me that many student drivers end up waiting for hours past their appointment time, and this could be a problem since their service was charged hourly.
As you can see, making the driving exam appointment was a massive hurdle in itself. At this point, I’ve already waited for three months to make the appointment. Now I still have to resolve the next problem — who’s going to take me to the exam before I even get to worry about passing it.
My amazing and wonderful boyfriend, who learned the situation, heroicly stepped in and volunteered to take half the day off to take me to the exam. This also meant that I could drive his car — i.e. the car I used for most of my training — for my exam, which was a huge advantage.
The driving school owner also told me that in spite of the backed-up lines, I should still take the exam in the afternoon to avoid rush hour. This was the first time I signed up for an exam that took place in the afternoon — I always preferred to take the driving exams in the morning so that I get it over with early in the day. But I took her advice this time for a change.
On the day of my exam, I had the whole morning for the nerves to build up. It was petrified. I called up one of my closest girlfriends who was in London, and I told her I couldn’t bear the humiliation of dying without a driver’s license after all this trying. It’s close to being a joke. And she reassured me that an imprint of my driver’s license would surely be etched on my tombstone when I die.
I went out to grab lunch, and literally, my legs were feeling weak. I wondered how on earth I could control a car if I didn’t even have control over my own body.
But my boyfriend called, picked me up, brought me to the DMV, and checked me in. At one point, the DMV staff thought we didn’t have the correct paperwork, and I secretly hoped that it was true so that I could avoid the exam. But it turned out the paperwork was fine, so the exam was on.
My feet were still trembling. During the exam, I had my left foot supporting my right foot from beneath while stepping on the break.
But I passed.
I stopped correctly at every junction.
I scanned every pedestrian crossing.
I waited just enough time before I moved again.
I never thought I’d say this, but I was on autopilot during my driving exam. When my hands were on the (familiar) wheel, I felt it pushed backed on my palms. The car was my friend.
In short, everything was in control, even when I am feeling kind of out of control — even when my palms are sweaty, my feet trembling, my head (slightly) dizzying.
What can I say? I was just very well-practiced. So well-practiced that I was able to overcome my mental block.
I got only two minor checks (okay… nearly perfect). The examiner scribbled the words “Good Drive” on the comment box — which I was, at one point, very sure that I would turn into a line of merchandise.
The examiner’s demeanor was much less than celebratory than his handwriting. Perhaps disgruntled that he couldn’t fail me (as I joked in my mind), he handed me the sheet of paper, swiftly got off the car, and disappeared.
I didn’t care. I was overjoyed! For once, I didn’t have to deliver to my boyfriend and my family any more bad news.
I ran over to the counters to apply for my California Real ID driver’s license. I had brought all the documents — my passport, my proof of addresses, etc.
“So you knew you were gonna pass! You even brought all your documents with you!” My boyfriend was bemused.
“I brought them just in case!”
For a self-proclaimed untalented driver, having two driver’s licenses in the world isn’t too shabby after all.
What this taught me about the Imposter Syndrome
If you’ve managed to read to the end of this long post, I have a slightly controversial thought to share with you.
Disclaimer: The following theory is just told based on my personal experience; it’s not based on any empirical scientific study.
And it’s the idea that “imposter syndrome” — this hugely trending word these days — is something that can be addressed.
I know that what I’m about to say is too reductive at least or politically incorrect at most to put forward this theory, but even experts cannot come to a consensus of what causes the Imposter Syndrome and how to fix it. So, it warrants this personal take.
My theory is that maybe we have to stare the Imposter Syndrome at its face, and admit that maybe “I am an imposter” (for now). But — and this is a big “but” — instead of just shunning it, or simply “calling it out” to make yourself feel better (like what most literature would tell you to do: read this, or this), what about focusing on improving your sense of control so that you slowly become, and feel like “the real deal”?
Again — yes, this is reductive. A whole other side of the equation, I think, involves trying to become your authentic self, and finding your true passion, and all that. Maybe I’ll come to write a separate article on that after some more digging. But there’s this one aspect of it — about practice-makes-perfect — that I wanted to home in on in this one personal story.
Other than being a very poor driver, I’ve been an architect (an ill-fitted role for me), a Ph.D. student, and a career-switcher. I’m often allegedly the prime ‘victim’ of the “Imposter Syndrome,” and I’ve heard it in every stage of my professional life in some form of ‘pep talk.’
For me, the driving exam is not just an isolated event but an apt analogy for many things in life and at work. Imposter syndrome is what I felt like after passing my first driving exam in Hong Kong, and what I would continue to feel like had I passed the exams by chance and by luck. After my second driving exam, I no longer felt like an imposter, because I felt like I was finally in total control of my whole being. I practiced so much that even paralyzing levels of fear could no longer stop me.
I made sure that my performance was speckless even when on autopilot in less-than-ideal internal and external conditions.
Intentional, deliberate practice should lead to resilience in your performing standard. Theoretically, the more you practice, the less you have to rely on luck. And the less you are relying on luck, the less you will you tell yourself you are an imposter. The driving challenge was such a big life lesson. Passing it, ultimately, helped me gain confidence and helped me grow. I started to believe that if I applied the same level of determination and sense of control to other aspects of my life, I’d be less of an “imposter” in them too.
It’s all common sense, is it not?