7 Unexpected Lessons I Learned Driving for Uber

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 14, 2017

To research a story on the benefits and blessings of interacting with strangers, SUCCESS asked me to serve as an Uber driver for a few days. And there were many. But I also picked up several unexpected side lessons, such as…

Related: The Uber Episode

1. It’s super weird to let strangers get into your car.

I am, by nature, a retiring sort. I also have what the nice doctors call a “thing about keeping my car obsessively clean.” Moreover, I’m a dad of two boys, so my passengers are usually of the small and sniffly variety. And although Uber grew more natural over the week, it initially felt damn near alien to invite strangers into my car, my personal space, the vehicle I use to take my kids to and from school and my family to and from movies. (The first guy even got into the front seat! Total Uber party foul.)

2. I don’t go to many parts of my city.

I activated the Uber bat signal in my Indianapolis suburb, but my first fare was an office worker who needed a lift downtown. From there, I bounced around parts of town I don’t usually frequent, and, given the exposure, took the opportunity to ping my passengers for lunch and/or bar tips. If nothing else, I can look at a hometown map now, and the broad space of blank words and crisscrossing lines that used to be abstract now seems accessible and familiar. And I know a place to get pad thai and another that serves absurdly good po’boys. (I know, it’s Indianapolis. We still like po’boys in Indianapolis.)

3. You really can’t predict people.

I was sent to a jail, which, as you might imagine, did not fill me with a sense of optimism, but once there I picked up an exceedingly friendly lawyer whose car was in the shop. I was sent to a high school at 2:30 p.m., which filled me with even less optimism—what kind of spoiled princess needs a chauffeur, I internally grumbled—but my fare was a high-school junior en route to her after-school job at Taco Bell. She was doing so, she said, because she didn’t get her license for a few more months, so her working dad gave her Uber money as a stopgap solution. She couldn’t have been more together or more friendly. I gave a little thought to whether I’d allow my son to get into a stranger’s car three days a week after school—short answer, a hard no. But this wasn’t my life, my circumstances nor my decision. The situation dictated this was the best answer for this family of strangers, so they took it. (And suddenly, I was nervous about making sure I got her to work on time.)

4. People are chattier than I thought.

I am not. I would prefer to sit in a barber’s chair quietly for 15 minutes than chatter about the snow or Andrew Luck or politics, especially politics. But I don’t think I had a single passenger who wouldn’t chat; I had a few who wouldn’t stop. Sure, I used a few interviewing tactics to get folks to open up, but I enjoyed picking up these random torn-away paper scraps from these stranger’s lives. This guy is self-publishing a comic book, this woman has been driving on a suspended license for six years, this guy is trading in his luxury car because of a pending baby, this girl’s boyfriend has had surgery after surgery, this guy plays trumpet and knows a good jazz bar.

5. People will help you out.

I couldn’t find one guy’s address, ending up hopeless and anxious in the parking lot of a fast-food chicken joint. My fare called me and helpfully directed me to my pickup spot, which was, embarrassingly, like 30 yards across the street. Apologies again, sir; I’m new at this.

6. The rich guy didn’t leave a tip.

The conventional wisdom regarding Uber tips is deliberately confusing. Uber’s official position is that they’re worked into the fare, but of course if you get special service for something, a little bit extra wouldn’t go awry. So I picked up a guy at his own business, helped him load his golf clubs into my car and drove him to an import auto dealership, where he was trading one (fancy model of) car for an (equally fancy model of) car. I’m not saying I was expecting a five-spot for my troubles, but come on man. Also this guy couldn’t understand the popularity of Taylor Swift, so I already didn’t like him.

7. Sometimes you babysit.

I picked up a mom and her son, a 12-year-old who I came to learn was an actor who’d appeared in Empire, a Spielberg-produced sci-fi series Extant and a Star Wars-themed commercial I saw all throughout Christmastime; he appears this March in the new Wolverine movie, Logan. Naturally this was a bright and outgoing kid, one of those preternatural tweens who acts more like 24, and I got a good chance to chat with him while his mom went into a building to see her parents for about 10 minutes. In that time, the kid and I chatted about Pokemon Go—turns out there are really good ones in Prague—his lifestyle and his upcoming work.

I gave little thought to whether I’d leave my 12-year-old in a car with an Uber driver—another hard no—but by this time I was starting to suspect my approach wasn’t everyone’s. Which I suppose was my main takeaway from my week as an Uber driver, a lesson that never gets less worthy: This is a big rock that contains lots of people, and it never hurts to consider their worlds once in a while.

Related: Travis Kalanick: ‘You Can Either Do What They Say or You Can Fight for What You Believe’

Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.