Or, the cycle of life

I only learned to ride a bicycle last year, after turning 40, and in the process, learned a more than just cycling.

I’ve wanted to learn to cycle since I was a child, so I’m really a few decades late here. (There was that one time when I’d tried a couple years ago, but after two hours of falling and failing to move my friend’s bike—and despite his immense patience—I felt no closer to being able to cycle than when I began.) I don’t regret it, though, because it turns out that there’s value to learning stuff as an adult that most people are expected to learn as children.

As a beautiful Nigerian saying puts it: “Whenever you wake up is your morning.”

I’ve certainly found that to be the case. Learning to cycle as an adult required me to process what I was doing a bit more than I’d have as a child. Because the skills don’t come quite as naturally to me, I find myself thinking about them a bit more and, in so doing, finding connections I’d perhaps take for granted if I’d learned them earlier. The more I rode, the more I found that bicycles are a metaphor for life itself.

I suppose we could call it the cycle of life.

So here’s what cycling taught me about living.

Pushing off is the hard part

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I almost entirely taught myself to ride. That day I’d been out running with friends and one told me she’d just learned to cycle by herself. On my way home I stopped by a local shop that fixed old bikes people gave them for free and sold it for cheap, just to cover the cost of labour. But the guy who sold it to me said he couldn’t let me go without any lessons when he found out I had zero cycling experience. And so, at no extra cost, he gave me my first and only lesson: a half-hourlong session in pushing off.

It was incredibly hard, and I almost lost hope: how would I ever learn to cycle if I couldn’t even coordinate my legs for this seemingly simple task? My self-appointed instructor, bless him, was incredibly patient. Once, when I let out an “Aaargh” of frustration, he said, “Don’t be hard on yourself. You’re here, and you haven’t given up, that’s what’s important.”

And he was right. I’d pushed off already in the ways that mattered. By simply being there, I’d pushed off from my comfort zone to learn a new skill. And by continuing to try, I was pushing off from my shame. (Especially given the three boys with their bikes who’d been watching with mild interest from a few feet away.)

Pushing off into any new skill is always hard, but the real battle is pushing off from our own internal inertia.

If you’ve taken that first step out, you’ve already pushed off. Going on is way easier after that.

You can’t be better without first being worse

As with any new skill, learning to cycle was frustrating. That first day alone I repeatedly tried to push off only to mess up my coordination and falter, sometimes scratching my legs on the pedals. (I remember being grateful I was wearing jeans instead of shorts!)

Many times over the next couple weeks, with many more such near-falls (and a few actual ones) but little actually forward movement, I often found myself thinking how much better simply walking would be: faster, less injurious and, well, just simpler.

Except, walking is anything but simple.

It’s a process that involves you supporting your entire weight on two appendages and coordinating them to achieve forward motion one step after another without those appendages getting in each other’s way, and keeping that up for hours if necessary. It’s not for nothing it takes children a while, and that we celebrate them taking their literal first steps. We intuitively get that walking is a big deal.

As with all skills, it feels simple once you’ve mastered it. Conversely, that simplicity makes it harder to learn something new, because you go from feeling good at something to feeling rubbish. It’s a bit like how people often say “Oh I haven’t got a head for languages” when the sheer fact that they’re able to say that is itself hard proof that they can learn! But of course, the problem really isn’t with learning languages, it’s the shame and sense of inadequacy from struggling with a very complex skill that they now view as simple.

To use the language (if you’ll allow the pun!) of the four stages of competence, it’s basically going from unconscious competence back to conscious incompetence. Except it’s actually going forward—into a whole new skill.

The 4 quadrants of competence
The 4 quadrants of competence

The biggest enemy to learning skills that make you better is often your competence with the skills you already have. And if you wish to be better, you have to be okay with being worse for a bit. And as with training wheels, making it “easier” with fallbacks sometimes just makes the learning take longer because you will, in fact, keep falling back on them. But as with my finding walking simple, the skills you already have are themselves proof of your ability to learn new ones.

We get to decide whether our skills are crutches, or catalysts.

Progress requires pauses

This was one of the surprising lessons. I found it, as often happens with the best things, entirely by accident.

My initial lesson was on a Saturday, and I wasn’t able to fit in another attempt during the workweek. At the time I told myself it was because I was so busy, but even then, I realised it was partly me being nervous. The idea of returning from work (where I felt like I knew what I was doing) to spend my downtime practising cycling (which I certainly felt inept at) was not at all appealing. Even less appealing was the sinking feeling of remembering I had only managed to push forward a couple times after an hour of trying, and knowing I’d have to work at that my next time out.

But I’d also got the bike to practise with, and I had no intentions of leaving it to gather dust. So the next weekend, I dragged myself and my bike out for another go. Within ten minutes, though, I realised my pushing forward appeared to have improved—magically, given I’d not practised since my initial woeful effort. Sure, I still faltered, but it was undeniably less frequent, and my legs just somehow coordinated better.

It wasn’t magic, of course. As soon as I reflected on it, I remembered learning about evidence from research on sleep and learning in general. Some studies have suggested that motor skills in particular can be improved by consolidation of memory during sleep. That definitely appears to have happened for me. Similar to how taking time to recover after exercise gives muscles time to actually grow in response, pauses from learning motor skills also helps deepen them.

Applies to life in general. Work becomes increasingly less productive when we don’t rest. And even the most intimate relationships are helped by having other relationships and other activities to refresh ourselves with.

Focusing on obstacles helps you run into them

This I learned the hard way, after nearly (and sometimes actually) running straight into a bunch of bollards I’d spent a good few seconds determined to avoid hitting. It’s one of the first few bits of advice you get when learning to cycle—so common I knew it from back before I ever even considered learning to cycle. “Look ahead, not down.” And certainly don’t look at those couple bollards instead of the path you actually want to take between them.

Except, it’s hard to not look at something that might send you flying if you do hit it.

As it happens, breaking a bad habit by trying to stop is much harder than working to replace it with a habit you actually want. Nature abhors a vacuum and all that. And so I found that it was much easier when I tried focusing on where I was going instead. It still took some work, and I still tensed up and got wobbly when I got close to bollards. But I got better, and eventually was able to sail right past obstacles without wobbling.

The thing that really did it though was my growing confidence. I didn’t quite realise it at the time, but what I was really afraid of was a lack of confidence in my ability to manoeuvre the bike through what seemed a tiny space. Then my understanding of “tiny space” shrunk with increasing self-assurance in my skills.

Cycling, like life, requires you to look where you want to go. That’s simply how eyes, and focus, work. And staying focused on what you don’t want often proves a great way to run right into them. At the very least, it means less attention to where you do want to go—if you even manage to define it.

What do you want, and how are you going for it? Acknowledge the obstacles and then refocus on your goal itself. But even if you’re not clear about the goal, or that’s hard to focus on, you can focus on being more confident at what it is you have to do, using the points so far: push off, be okay with being worse, and pause to progress.

You have to keep moving to stay balanced

That’s not a new idea: it goes back to Einstein (and before him to several English preachers, including Charles Spurgeon). But I found it out for myself once I’d got a few cycling lessons under my belt and gone from start-stop movement to something more fluid. It only took a few more weeks of weekend practice! Still, I was soon able, while riding, to pay attention to things that weren’t my fear of falling off.

And I was struck, more than anything else, by the very act itself. Consider what it means to cycle. A bicycle, by definition, is two-wheeled, which means it actually can’t stand on its own: you either have to support it with at least one keg, a kickstand or by leaning it against a wall. To that, you add your weight, which unless you’re a small child is much heavier than the bike, and keep this thing upright for miles and miles.

And the thing that’s keeping it upright is precisely that body weight, constantly shifting.

I hadn’t been aware of that. Of course, I quickly saw upon some thought that shifting weight is part of how we walk. It’s why you limp when one leg hurts: you’re trying to minimise the pain from your own weight, so you shift it less toward that leg. But I also realised why I’d never noticed the weight shifting in cycling: it’s simply more subtle, with much smaller movements. You lean a bit this way, adjust a little that way, nothing dramatic.

And you keep right on pedalling. (Except when you get gravity on your side!)

Because it’s the combination of the forward motion and your shifting weight that keeps the bike on its own two “feet”. It’s how you deal with bumps, turn corners, and negotiate around other road users.

It’s also how you negotiate life.

Everyone gets to those moments where you wish everything would just pause, so you can take some time out to catch your breath, and if you’re lucky, you might even get to go away somewhere and do that. But more often, you have to figure out your balance on the move, right in the middle of living. And that requires shifting your weight: putting less of you into some things, and more into others. It doesn’t mean that one or the other is better or worse, just acknowledging what needs your attention right now and adjusting accordingly. And except for the inevitable (and hopefully occasional!) crisis moments, most of those adjustments are minor.

Sometimes, though, you get to just coast: no pedalling, not much shifting, just you staying steady and letting gravity and friction and the wind at your back and the road do the work.

It never lasts too long. But while it does, it’s very nice indeed. I used to imagine getting to a point in life when everything is just straightforward, and I could just coast. I’ve come to embrace that coasting is not the point, it’s just a way life can sometimes be. You enjoy it while it lasts, and then get back to pedalling and shifting your weight.

That, my friends, is the cycle of life.

Originally published at Better Humans on Medium. Featured image by author.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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