Life On Two Wheels: 12 Life Lessons From Riding My Motorcycle
What Riding A Motorcycle Taught Me About Life
Around the time I turned 40 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I was a drug addict. But my drug wasn’t chemical–I had become addicted to my many comfort zones.
Comfort zones are those seemingly safe spaces we create and insulate ourselves within, auto-pilots running the same algorithms that drive (and limit) our thoughts, habits, and thus, our experiences.
Here are few examples of what I mean by our comfort zones:
The types of people we choose to talk to, and then invite into our circle.
The work we think we are qualified for, and the companies we think would hire us.
The dreams we allow ourselves to pursue.
How we structure our day.
It was when I finally admitted just how many of these comfort zones I had created for myself, that I wasn’t growing as I had wanted to, AND that my imagined vision for myself was on the other side of them, that I finally did something to jump outside of my comfort zones.
It was in 2017, while driving through the Maritime Alps between Northern Italy and Southern France, on my way to my Airbnb in Marseille, that I looked at the road in front of me and thought, “This would be awesome to ride on a motorcycle!”.
And then a moment later, “Maybe I’ll learn how to ride one when I get home.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but in learning how to ride a motorcycle I was going to learn an entirely new way to live my life.
And the lessons were going to become a playbook for how I–anyone–could live outside of comfort zones, and as a happy consequence enjoy life on a whole new level.
The 12 Lesson I Learned While Learning How To Ride a Motorcycle
So here are twelve lessons I learned while learning how to ride a motorcycle, and how I see them applying to life when not on two wheels.
The lesson sounds obvious, but damn it if the mind and body are not oil and water until you force them to couples counseling and get them working together.
So here is the scenario.
You are riding a motorcycle at speed and approaching a sharp curve. The road bends left, and on your right is a cement wall. You obviously don’t want to hit the wall, and so you are pressing your body to go left, pressing the motorcycle to go left, and your internal thoughts are “don’t hit the wall, don’t hit the wall, please for god’s sake don’t hit the wall.”
But if your eyes are looking at the wall, despite all the rest, there is a better than even chance you are going to hit the wall.
Because the muscles in the body will focus on what the brain tells them to focus on, and your eyes are sending signals of the wall to your brain at this moment.
Happens every damn time, and every damn wall.
And this is exactly what I did, until I didn’t. If I focused on my feet, nervous they were not in the right position to either brake or gear shift, I would drop the bike (as in, the bike would tumble over with me on it).
If I focused on the cement wall I didn’t want to hit while going into my turn, the bike would invariably drift towards the cement wall.
Once I learned to focus on the direction and at the space in which I wanted to go, riding a motorcycle got more fun (and more safe).
On those sharp turns I now turn my head and intensely focus on where I want the bike to go (not where I don’t want it to go). And that’s where both the bike and I end up, exactly where I focus my attention.
If we focus on what we want, and not allow ourselves to become distracted by what we don’t, we have a good chance of getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want.
If we can imagine ourselves succeeding–closing our eyes and truly seeing us having already accomplished whatever activity we are now pursuing–we are creating the right mental space for us to fulfill our imagined vision.
This is what Napoleon Hill speaks about in Think & Grow Rich. It is the foundation of what James Allen writes about in As A Man Thinketh. It’s what you have heard as the power of suggestion.
It’s what Popeye does when he eats his spinach.
Lesson #2: Accidents will always develop in front of you
This may be obvious, but unlike on a car there is no reverse on a motorcycle.
If you want to go backwards on a motorcycle you are Fred Flintstone’ing it—you’re using your legs. A motorcycle, it seems, is very eastern in its philosophy. It is built to move forward with ease, no matter how slowly, but backwards only with extreme effort.
The intentional focus, therefore, is on what’s in front of you, not behind you.
Sometimes there is only a half second of time for your muscle memory and reflex and experience to decide for you how your body will respond to what is happening in front of you. The horizon suddenly painted red with brake lights.
The truck jack-knifing. The car swerving into your lane.
Now that is not to say my eyes are never on my mirrors. Any experienced rider knows to have his or her “head on a swivel”—knowing what’s around all 360 degrees of their space.
And while I have had more than one asshole drive into me from behind with the exceptionally lame excuse, “I didn’t see you”, the accidents are always developing in front of me (and in this case, the accident was developing in front of them).
But paying (too much) attention to what’s going on behind you will deprive your muscle memory and reflex and experience of that half second that just may save your life.
Focus on the past, and you’ll end up hanging out there at the expense of your present and your opportunity for a rich and enjoyable future.
The human body saw fit to position our only set of eyes looking at what’s in front of us, not at what’s behind us.
Trust biology and that our eyes are positioned correctly.
Lesson #3: Always take the backroads
I lived in Austin, Texas for a year while Fernanda lived in San Antonio, and I would ride down nearly every weekend to see her. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and for this trip, that is Interstate 35.
For nearly every one of the 80 miles between those two points, the road is a three to four lane mind-numbing straight line. On the opposite side are another three to four of the same lanes, and flanking both sides of the interstate is large open space with either nothing to look at or parking-lot sized retail buildings.
And then there are the massive 18-wheel semis barreling down the interstate.
I did that trip once on my motorcycle. Once.
Besides being incredibly stressful and a bit dangerous, it is also incredibly boring (no turns means there isn’t anything to do on the motorcycle but sit still).
So, either your body wants to fall asleep from the boredom (neither safe nor fun on a motorcycle), or you are clenching the pair your momma gave you seated over your engine as semi after semi passes you generating a gust of wind that moves you and your thousand pound bike over a little in the process.
Add just 30 minutes more to your trip and take the backroads, and you get:
No semi trucks.
For the majority of the trip, not another vehicle at all sharing the road with you…just you.
Scenic views of farms, ranches, those hills of Texas Hill Country, and the occasional field of cows or horses and sometimes sheep.
And turns. Those gloriously beautiful turns that make riding a motorcycle an exercise in grace and style, not to mention sheer enjoyment. Every rider wants a road with its fair share of twisties.
And when my surroundings are interesting, and not an endless loop of more-of-the-same, it can feel like one’s possibilities are endless.
The backroads made my journey more enjoyable, safer, and created possibilities that would not have existed otherwise.
The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but it doesn’t mean it’s the safest distance, or the most enjoyable ride, or the smartest path to travel.
Usually, what makes life interesting and worth living, exists on the backroads, on those roads less taken. How many times have you fallen in love with that hole in the wall restaurant and then was disappointed when everyone else discovered it?
Humans crave what is unique, we hunger for what hasn’t yet been discovered, we are, in our bones, explorers. So do what we were put here to do—explore the backroads and suck the marrow out of life.
Lesson #4: Travel light, learn to ride (to live) without (baggage)
Anything we can do to increase our chances of living in the 20% (or better yet, not being in the statistic at all) is a must have.
It is difficult to travel on a motorcycle with “stuff”. Sure, there are saddle bags, but they can fit only small items.
When I started making that trip to San Antonio every weekend, I would often have a backpack on with my laptop, weekend clothing and footwear (so I didn’t have to be in my riding gear all weekend), that bottle of wine I wanted Fernanda to try, a new game I bought for us to play, and whatever else I thought would make for an enjoyable weekend.
Lots of “stuff.”
I quickly realized how much I was increasing my chances of living in that 80% statistic, because having weight on my back for two hours was not only uncomfortable (and not the good kind of being outside your comfort zone), created stress on my neck and shoulders and thus accelerated fatigue, but impeded my movements and created a drag on my ability to maneuver the motorcycle effortlessly.
Traveling light allowed me to not only enjoy my trip better (for the next fifty weekends) but increased my chances of arriving there and back safely.
How often does our “stuff” or “baggage” get in the way of what we are trying to do in life?
Our romantic relationships. Parenting our kids. The workplace and our desire for advancement. And then there is all of our physical stuff that ends up bursting from closets and garages.
Wouldn’t all of the above be better without the baggage?
Take a minute before you read on and think about just one thing you should call “baggage”…and then how much less frustrating and how much more enjoyable your life would be like if you just set it down and walked away from it, forever.
Lesson #5: Don’t forget to enjoy the ride
My motorcycle is my sole mode of transportation.
The last time I owned a car was just after moving into New York City when I gave it up for the convenience of the subway. No traffic meant I could usually sleep, or read, or pretend not to see the *expletive deleted* who thought it smart to eat stinky, messy hot food next to me, and enjoy the ride.
Unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of mass transit in San Antonio. So my motorcycle is what I use to grocery shop; to take me to Home Depot (to rent their truck when I have materials to buy); to travel the heavily trafficked roads during rush hour; and it is also what I use to simply ride for a few hours in Texas Hill Country for pleasure.
But except for that last one, it’s easy to become impatient on the ride, simply wanting to get where I am going so that I can begin doing what I am supposed to be doing—and forget to enjoy the ride. But why have a motorcycle if you are not going to enjoy the ride?
(Both Fernanda and my mother end that sentence after, “but why have a motorcycle?” to which I respond, “because I enjoy the ride.”)
Whether on a motorcycle, in a car, or in life, there are never any guarantees we will reach our intended destination.
The one thing we do know is that right now, at this very moment, we are on the journey.
So while we cannot control whether or not we ultimately reach the destination, we do control whether or not we are going to enjoy the ride.
Why not enjoy it? It’s a small way to exercise what control we have over what often feels like a life entirely out of our control.
Lesson #6: Always plan ahead
When I first moved to San Antonio I went on a ride of the Twisted Sisters, a trio of farm-to-market roads that form a loop—and for many riders begins in Leaky, Texas, about fifty miles west of Bandera.
The route is legendary with riders for its many curves (the “twisted” part of the name) and the beauty of the ranches, and farms, and hills, and whatever else you’re able to see when not white-knuckling it around yet another blind curve.
I had been in San Antonio for maybe two weeks, and my Google Maps was my only and best friend. But on this Saturday afternoon after braving the Twisted Sisters, I finished lunch in Leaky and was ready to head back home when I found my phone attempting an update and failing to find a viable wireless signal.
For at least 30 minutes while I struggled to get it working it was nothing more than an expensive paper weight in my hands.
I had been concentrating all morning on enjoying the scenery, and relying on Google Maps to speak into my helmet when and where to turn, that I wasn’t making any mental notes of when and were to turn.
I was lost without my GPS.
Then there was the time I forgot to take extra water with me (Texas in the summer can be north of one hundred degrees, and in all my riding gear can get quite dehydrating).
Or the time I didn’t check the air pressure in my tires (and got a flat).
Or the time I didn’t check the afternoon weather when departing for a long ride in the morning, and gained ten pounds in rain on the way home.
Or the time…
It’s what you do when you take an umbrella with you as you leave the house in the morning. Or when you tell your kids to use the bathroom before a long trip (not that it helps any). Or when you diversify your 401K portfolio. Or when you eat a full meal before going to a new person’s house for dinner.
Always planning ahead is how we ensure our continued survival.
It’s how we (attempt) to guarantee a little peace and happiness (or safety) for ourselves later on by doing something small now.
Lesson #7: Be (intelligently) spontaneous
But all of that planning should not mean that spontaneity is out of the question.
In fact, half of the fun riding a motorcycle is catching a road that looks interesting and deciding to take it just to see what’s on it. Or passing a lake you didn’t know was there, pulling over to enjoy it for a minute, and deciding you want to turn the minute into an hour.
I have discovered new favorite places to eat, new roads to ride, and even made a new friend, when I decided to be spontaneous on the bike and diverge from my planned route.
Spontaneity in a relationship keeps it from becoming stale and reduces the risk you grow apart. Spontaneity in business can keep you fresh with your customers, and help keep your competition guessing, reducing the risk you become predictable and beatable.
Being spontaneous keeps you flexible and more creative, opens up new opportunities, and by extension makes one happier.
Like when you spontaneously decide to write a blog.
Lesson #8: Fill up whenever you have the chance
I have a 2003 Honda VTX. It has a five-gallon tank, which generally allows me around 200 miles (I average 40MPG, and with gas prices now—summer 2022—it’s difficult to complain about that).
But my bike doesn’t have a fuel reader.
So if I am not keeping track of how many miles I have ridden since my last fill up, I’ll know when I’m on empty when the bike simply shuts off on me (I am proud to say that only happened once…lesson quickly learned).
If I am going out on a ride, especially in Hill Country where there isn’t a gas station on every corner (also because there aren’t many corners), I will be sure to fill up whenever the opportunity presents itself no matter how many miles I have ridden (within reason…if I just filled up and pass another gas station ten minutes later, I don’t fill up again…these are meant to be lessons, after all, not absurdities).
That time I ran out of gas, I was on a freeway, in the left lane, during rush hour.
Fuel is to the motorcycle what nurturing is to the soul.
Fill up on anything that nurtures your soul whenever and wherever you can. Life is sometimes bereft of “corner gas stations”, and it could be miles before we have another opportunity to fill up.
And at the end of the day, are we not, as Shakespeare said, just food for worms?
Fill up on what nurtures your soul before the worms feed on the rest of us.
Lesson #9: There is always a mother****er in the way
One way I like to think I keep myself alive on my motorcycle is to play a game every time I ride.
I imagine every driver in every car around me is a sixteen year old who just passed their driving exam this morning and broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend five minutes ago, and who’s nose is now buried in their phone, crying and texting about their heartache.
Everyone is a threat until I am well clear of them.
But let’s be serious. How many other technical skills that can easily result in human death if done incorrectly or inefficiently do we give people a license for life after a single laughable exam when they are barely a teenager?
We are creating the mother****ers.
The driver buried in their cell phone. The woman putting on her makeup in the rearview mirror. The one pretending to be a race car driver on the freeway.
All mother****ers in the way.
The goal is to reach our intended destination as safely, as efficiently, and as productively as possible.
Anything or anyone not helping or supporting your advancing closer to your goals, they are mother****ers in the way.
Don’t waste time showing them they are wrong (mother****ers never believe they are wrong). Don’t try to teach them a lesson (mother****ers are incapable of learning anything that doesn’t immediately fit neatly inside their worldview).
Simply look to move past them as quickly as possible.
Lesson #10: Always have an escape path
In today’s cars there are countless crumple zones meant to absorb and deflect away from the driver and passengers the force of energy in a collision.
On the motorcycle, I am the crumple zone in its entirety.
A car driver can walk away from a collision. A motorcycle rider is usually carried away from a collision.
Cars have four wheels that, unless the vehicle is top heavy in a sharp turn at speeds, will keep the car upright in a hard-braking situation or when traversing slick surfaces.
Motorcycles have two wheels that, even with today’s models with anti-lock braking systems, can severely struggle to stay upright in a hard-braking situation or when slick surfaces are a factor.
When my bike comes to a stop, I very much want it to be when I decided it was time to come to a stop, not when the stop was forced upon me.
One of the key skills riders are taught in motorcycle safety school is to S-E-E. SEARCH, EVALUATE, EXECUTE.
Search for where the escape routes are located. Evaluate which escape paths will provide the best outcome. And when necessary, execute without hesitation.
And having more than one in case your preferred path becomes blocked is always a good thing.
To be on my motorcycle and not constantly be constructing options for moving forward without injury—identifying escape paths—is to accept a false comfort zone, and that will ultimately be cause for my injuring or killing myself on it.
Escape paths are plans B, C, D, etc. to the punches life throws at us. Divorce. Job loss. Illness. Stock market collapse.
Life’s road is full of hazards, traffic, and mother****ers in the way.
Learning to apply S-E-E to your every day can buy you just enough time to mentally regroup and right yourself again, rather than fall into a debilitating “why me?” attitude.
Lesson #11: Sometimes your own company is the best company
When I was a kid and we’d take family road trips, my brothers and I would load our backpacks with snacks and games to occupy our time.
In college, the road trips with friends were little different. Snacks, beverages, and games.
But riding a motorcycle is far more of a solitary activity. Sure, you can have someone ride on the back of your motorcycle. And sure, you can ride in a group of other riders. But no one can ever hear anyone else. There is no conversation. And no snacks. No games.
It’s just you and your thoughts on the motorcycle—it’s beautiful.
I haven’t taken a poll or conducted any study, but I would bet my motorcycle that most if not all riders have an elevated appreciation and enjoyment for being alone.
I think it would be difficult to enjoy riding a motorcycle if the rider didn’t like to be alone.
Like how if you don’t like water you are likely not going to take up swimming. Or not go to Texas if you are someone who doesn’t like to see everything supersized.
And being alone on your motorcycle is exactly why I enjoy riding. Nothing and no one else demanding anything of me. No limitations save those I put on myself. The freedom to push my limitations. The freedom to experience the whole of my space without being confined in a box.
The freedom to…well, just be free.
David Whyte, in his poem “Sweet Darkness” concludes with this: “Sometimes it takes the darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”
We would all be better off if we learned how to be a better friend to ourself. To have meaningful conversations with ourself. To spend time with ourself. To define what being alive means for us, and the types of people we will allow to disturb our aloneness.
Lesson #12: Never get comfortable
Last, but not least—after all, it is the very reason I started riding—the most important lesson I have learned (a rule, really), and continue to remind myself each and every time I roll on the throttle, is to never get comfortable.
That doesn’t mean I am uncomfortable on my motorcycle.
Rather, I intentionally stay comfortably outside my comfort zone. It’s where my heightened awareness is at its peak. It’s where I am alert to my surroundings, their dangers, and more importantly, their opportunities.
It’s where I have a chance to learn something new, to experience something new, to grow in my riding ability.
And we have returned to where we started. Simply put…Never. Get. Comfortable.
When you feel comfortable, that’s the body’s growth gauge alerting you to the need to change something up–if constantly growing and becoming a better version of you is an objective.
I close this with a call for you to respect motorcycle riders on the road. If you see one, respect their space. A fender-bender for you could mean their life.
And if you ride, and you are in the San Antonio area, and you want want some company one day, hit me up…I’ll ride with you.
We can share some barbecue.
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