What I learned from learning to ride a bike — as a 29-year-old man
Ending my lifelong shame was a profound experience. It also taught me a few things.
I'm 29 years old, and last week I learned how to ride a bike. Yes, for the first time.
I could tell you I just never got around to it as a kid, but the truth is I was too proud and scared. I was a cerebral child so riding a bike was never going to be easy for me. And so it was better not to try and fail.
Over the years, I mostly hid this fact, but sometimes I would try to glory in it as a mark of my intellectualism and eccentricity. But, of course, that was all a façade. So since I've dedicated this year to personal improvement (like quitting smoking) I decided I should really get over myself and learn how to bike.
Thankfully Paris has one of those easy bike-rental schemes that are now popping up in cities all around the world. With the help of a very patient friend, I tried first for an hour, and failed dismally. But last week I took another crack at it, in an alley behind an office building. It took another long, exhausting, highly embarrassing hour of trying to pedal more than one yard and then falling over, but at the end, I was able to actually achieve liftoff for roughly 20 yards (before I hit the brakes and fell over).
This week I rode a bike for half an hour every day (learning how to turn was quite a challenge) and, as of this writing, I'm finally able to say I wouldn't be too afraid to make a total clown of myself if a friend asked me to join them on a bike ride.
Believe you me, killing this 20-year-old shame has been a profound experience for me. But more importantly, it's taught me a few things.
1. Humility is good for you.
That's the first and most important lesson. I was too proud to really try to learn to bike, and I needed to humble myself to do it.
And second, well, being a grown up who is trying to ride a bike and manifestly failing, in the middle of the street, is pretty embarrassing. Yep, I got jeers and disbelieving laughs from teens in the street. And it felt awful.
But, in a way — good. I don't know about you, but I spend too much of my time reassuring myself by looking down on other people. And remembering that teens, yes, teens, who have never had a real job, who know so little about real life, who — fercryinoutloud! — probably don't even know the difference between Plato and Aristotle, can do a simple thing so much better than me, is satisfyingly grounding. I needed the reality check.
2. Sometimes, there are no shortcuts.
We all look for shortcuts. Whether it's "lifehacks" or get-rich-quick schemes or get-thin-quick schemes, we want to find the trick that lets us skip the drudgery necessary for achieving our goals.
And, well, sometimes there really are shortcuts (I'm pretty sure I've never done the assigned reading for any class I ever took). But sometimes there just aren't. You're not going to learn how to bike by watching a YouTube video or learning more about physics or being really strategic about it. You just need to put in the work. You just need to fail at it over and over (and over and over), until you fail slightly less.
Turns out common sense is right: There's no substitute for putting in the work. And I probably should've done those readings, too.
3. "Do or do not. There is no try."
Another great thing about riding a bike is that it's pretty binary. You can either do it or you can't. Obviously once you can do it, you can get better at it, but fundamentally it's pretty binary. Which leaves you with no excuse.
With so many other things in life being much less black-or-white, we can create easy excuses for ourselves. "Oh, sure, I'm not in the best shape I could be, but I'm not in the worst shape either, so I'm doing ok." "Oh, sure, I'm not the best writer I could be, but I'm an okay writer." Of course, you can't be fanatical about everything you pursue in life, but there's a difference to not pursuing something doggedly because of limited resources, and not doing it because you're kidding yourself.
Instead of saying "I want to exercise more," set yourself clear, ambitious-but-attainable goals, and then meet them. As Yoda said, "Do or do not. There is no try."
4. Mind and body are one.
As I kept swerving to avoid old ladies and running into walls (and/or falling down), I kept thinking (because I'm weird) of the venerable Biblical teaching that every human being is a unity of body and spirit. I'm not a mind or a soul that has a body, I'm a body that has a mind and a soul.
The process by which we can forget our own minds and actually balance ourselves on these precarious objects is positively mystical. Whether it's biking, or tennis, or an instrument, or dancing, or whatever, we've all gone through that grueling and mysterious process of trying to do something physically non-intuitive and growing from ineptitude to second nature through sheer repetition.
The way our body learns this is simply amazing. My conscious mind isn't telling my body to balance this way and that way to keep the bike steady — in fact, as I know from painful experience, that's the surest way to lose your balance. When making a 90° turn today I noticed how I shifted my hips slightly to tilt my weight to the side and help the bike turn, even though that's something I never consciously decided or tried to do. But once I became aware of this movement, I was able, over time, to consciously summon it to make turns more smoothly.
We tend to think of our minds as "software" and our bodies as "hardware," or of our minds being ghosts in the machine, but the relationship between our minds and our bodies is much more complex, much more integrated, and much more mysterious. And it's lovely to be reminded of it.
5. Cherish the small things.
Here I am, waxing philosophical about going on a bike ride. Maybe it's a bit pompous. Alright, it probably is. But, then again, we really should cherish the small things. It really is an amazing thing, when you think about it, that we're able to propel ourselves on these contraptions that according to all good sense we shouldn't ever be able to balance ourselves on. Most people who take their bike mostly don't think about how amazing what they're doing is, but it's positively entrancing, in the way that every child's glance, every flower, every cloud, every butterfly, every smile, is a thing of unique and profound beauty. We live our lives surrounded by miracles which we take for granted. And we shouldn't. And if you think this paragraph is mawkish, I'm sorry for you your life is so dull.
6. Mastery feels great.
The reason why I'm writing this column is that even though every day this week my daily half-hour of biking felt like atrocious, embarrassing drudgery, today it felt so good that two minutes after putting the bike down on its rack, I went back, picked up the bike again, and went out for another ride. I felt like going on a bike ride.
And it's obvious why: I'd become good. (Or, at least, passable.) And so now I could actually enjoy taking a bike ride. But not only that, the feeling of growing mastery over the vehicle made me want to increase that mastery, to get even better.
Mastery is an amazing feeling, and as long as it's over things or hobbies, not people, it's healthy. And even though it's common sense, we all probably still need a reminder of this. Not just because it helps us get over the hump of the early drudgery of an undertaking, before it feels good. But also because we should all have something in life that we're motivated to get better at for no other reason than that thing itself.
If being a more desirable potential mate is the only thing that gets you to drag yourself to the gym, fine, but the end goal should be for you to enjoy jogging for its own sake. That's what is ultimately most fulfilling.
When I was in law school, I paid for it in part by working in telemarketing, which is up there in the pantheon of soul-deadening jobs. Once, however, I made an effort to at least try to enjoy it — and I found out I did. It's actually fun to interact with people.
It's always wise to treat others as ends in themselves and not means, but really, insofar as we can, why not try to do the same for a lot of stuff in life? It will only make us flourish more.