A Deadly Wandering – Living with Distraction [book review]

There are many things we can all learn from the story of Regie Shaw. The one that stands out most is probably this: each one of us could have easily been him, and still any one of us can easily become him. If that happens, you will kill innocent people through your neglect. You’ll also ruin the lives of the victims’ families, along with your own, having to live with the guilt of what you’ve done for the rest of your life.

A Deadly Wandering book cover

Have you ever taken a call when you were driving? Read or send a text message? Maybe even check email? I certainly have. Deep down inside I knew I shouldn’t. But checking one innocent text wouldn’t hurt, right? Well, ask Regie Shaw, and the families of the two rocket scientists he killed. They can tell you exactly how much it hurts.

Depending on the complexity of the driving task, it may take fifteen seconds or more after you’ve pushed ‘send’ before you’re fully back in an unimpaired state.”
– Dr. Strayer, University of Utah scientist

A Deadly Wandering immediately pulled me in and reminded me of another book: The Power of Habit. Probably even more so than the book by Charles Duhigg on habits, author Matt Richtel takes a potentially boring topic and turns it into a compelling and colorful narrative.

Richtel takes a powerful and true story that embodies the larger point he wants to make. He dives deep into the personal histories of all those involved to craft a rich and oftentimes emotional storyline, which grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. You’ll come away with a different perspective on the sway technology holds over us and the potential dangers, without feeling lectured.

A tale with many sides

A Deadly Wandering explores the ramifications (legally, morally and scientifically) of a deadly car crash caused by Regie Shaw. It takes plenty of interesting side roads by bringing in neuroscientists and legal experts. But also by exploring all the different perspectives helt by everyone who has been involved in the accident in one way or the other. It drives home how powerful the pull of our devices is and shows the lethal danger when combined with an activity such as driving.

There are also many deeper, more subtle messages hidden in the book. One is how our personal experiences affect our view of someone, in this case a criminal suspect. Do we feel pity or hate? Anger or understanding? A lot of that comes down to how much we can relate to the person. Richtel beautifully illustrates this by taking us through all the detailed personal histories of those involved in Regie’s story.

What does all this have to do with doing great work?

Why you find the book discussed here is because of another one of those subtle lessons the book contains. Something which years ago caught my attention in Hamlet’s Blackberry and this book kind of builds on.

Constantly being connected and distracted chips away at our well-being. Our minds are never fully at ease, always having the option to be doing something else. Will I choose to work, or choose to watch this movie? Should I check Twitter, or stay focused on writing this book summary? We are now forever burdened with the Paradox of Choice, 24/7 being able to choose from at least a dozen other things we could be doing instead.

If we find it hard to resist the pull of our devices even under dangerous circumstances, what does that mean for other everyday activities? Without even realizing it, there’s a hidden toll for always being connected and constantly being distracted. It affects the quality of our work, relationships and everything else we do.

A force beyond our willpower

This book has convinced me even more that there is such a thing as too much technology. Resisting its pull is beyond most people’s willpower. The story shows the call of our devices borders on a form of addiction, as we’ll even put ourselves and others in harm’s way to stay connected.

He likens the marketing of devices in the car to the cigarette industry. “It’s almost like back in the day of the tobacco industry. The automakers are saying: ‘We need more research, we need more research,’ and they keep building all the technology into the vehicles, which is normalizing the behavior and making it harder and harder down the road to say: ‘We’re killing all these people, we need to stop.'”
– David Teater, former auto industery executive in A Deadly Wandering

A Deadly Wandering drives home many lessons much more important than how technology affects our daily activities such as work. It obviously teaches us about the risks of being distracted while driving, but also about how to deal with guilt, forgiveness and other grand tragedy anyone might have to face in their lives.

Once your thoughts on those larger issues have settled, it is worth considering how always being connected and distracted affects other areas of your life. The book might help you realize you need some help taming that beast. And guess what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

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