Like riding a bike

Today I learned to ride a bike for the first time.  No, this isn’t the beginning of a retrospective on my life as a five year-old. Rapidly approaching my 22nd birthday, I had yet to sit on a bicycle and attempt to ride since my first elementary school. Until today.

Several questions naturally arise. What stopped me from trying to ride a bike for the last fifteen years? And what made me suddenly decide to pick it up now?

But first, a more basic question: how did it go?

Pretty awfully, to start. I couldn’t get my feet on the pedals, kept tipping over, nearly hit two stationary cars, and needed my teammate to hold me upright so I could get started. I was embarrassed, completely gave up at least three times, and thought myself hopeless.

Probably my lowest point was when a little girl sped past me on her pink Barbie bike with tassels flying alongside her hands.

But I kept going.

In the span of about forty minutes, I went from not being able to balance upright and cursing myself out to pedaling up and downhill, stopping with brakes, and maintaining stability over several runs around the block.

True to form, I can’t help but wonder what lessons I can take from this experience. All too often, I find myself procrastinating on long-term goals and picking up new skills through some kind of rationalized avoidance. Fear of embarrassment contributes. But it often goes deeper than social fears — that I didn’t have a strong enough plan for how to succeed.

Cal Newport has an excellent post about the evolutionary significance of complex planning. And my reluctance to pick up a bike stems from this natural reaction: I failed the last time I tried, and didn’t have a convincing plan for how to succeed this time. So I avoided it altogether.

But what’s uplifting is that all my fears were overcome by a little pressure from my friends and a desire to just get up and try it.  And, as it turns out, biking isn’t so hard to learn. So as I move forward, I’ll constantly re-evaluate other situations where I’ve failed, and invest in just trying again in spite of all the time that’s passed.

Rely on others, fail publicly, plan, fail again, and keep planning until your mind believes you can succeed. And then you might just surprise yourself.