From December 2002, for seven months, I lived in Uganda.
I worked on a project studying chimpanzees. We wanted to monitor the dwindling population in the hope of saving them and learning about their unique behaviour. I stayed at a safari camp most of the time but sometimes I joined the trip into town to buy supplies.
The manager of the lodge asked if I would drive the LandRover back to camp with two week’s shopping.
However, I’d never driven a 4×4. And I’d certainly never driven in the African bush. I knew that most of the drive back was down the side of the steep escarpment to the base of the Rift Valley, a large tear through East Africa. The road was a narrow, winding dirt track, with frequent rockfall, two-way traffic and a perilous drop on one side. But the camp manager was confident that I could do it.
Before setting off, some locals gave me some terrifying advice.
First, if I accidentally hit someone while driving, then I should continue to the next town or village and report the accident to the police. Even if I think I have killed someone! If I get out and check to see if the person is okay, there’s a good chance that I’ll be stoned to death by the victim’s community.
Second, there was a chance that someone would throw themselves into the road in front of my vehicle, aiming to injure, but not kill themselves. They would then try to extract compensation from me, the mzungu (a word for white-skinned travellers in Uganda).
On the bright side, Ugandans drive on the left side of the road, which, being British, I was familiar with.
I drove out the town of Fort Portal in a LandRover full of fruits, vegetables, chunks of meat, fabric and jerry cans of fuel. Tempey, the camp manager, joined me for the return trip.
The road was dusty and quiet. Pretty uneventful except for a sounder of warthogs that crossed the road just outside town. The vehicle was heavy to drive, and changing gears required pressing the clutch twice. But I was enjoying the new challenge.
We reached the edge of the escarpment and started the long, winding descent. I drove slowly and steadily, avoiding people with goats and some rocks that had broken away from the hillside. With the vehicle heavy and the road steep, I was braking constantly. Down and down. More braking. Descending and braking. Descending and then…. argh! No brakes!
On one of the last bends in the road, as the road levelled out, I pumped the brakes but they failed to slow the truck.
We hit the corner fast and the backend spun out and around. The truck started spinning in ever-smaller circles kicking up a cloud of dry red clay and dust.
Tempey was terrified. Grabbing the dashboard he screamed the whole time. But I remember laughing. In stressful situations, it seems this is the way I cope.
The LandRover stopped when its backend hit a ditch. We didn’t roll over, and somehow we weren’t hurt. Miraculously, most of the shopping was still in the back.
I radioed the camp to ask for help getting the LandRover out the ditch. Almost all the staff and wildlife rangers turned up. Everyone’s eyes were on me, judging me, I thought. I felt incompetent. And then embarrassed.
I learnt that when driving downhill for a long time, you can’t only use the brakes. You must stay in a low gear and use the engine to slow the vehicle.
I was lucky that the brakes failed only once I reached the bottom of the valley. I foolishly jumped into a heavily-laden truck that I’d never driven, in a country with very different driving challenges and I didn’t think to ask for advice.
What I didn’t know almost killed me.
In our business lives, we can apply this same lesson. Learn as much as you can about the industries your clients work in. Sign up to newsletters from industry leaders and your client’s competitors. You’ll learn loads and this will seep into the work you do for your clients.
Take just 20 minutes per week to read something industry related to a client. It’ll help you understand their business and their clients better. And you’ll provide much greater value.
I promise that most of your competitors and the freelancers on Fiverr and Upwork will not be doing this.
Be informed. Your clients will notice it.