Tuesday, 26 September, 2006

Setting the Bar

Posted in Biking, Philosophical Drifting at 12:04 pm by glpease

There’s a hill I’ve been trying to ride up all summer. It’s not a long hill – only a couple hundred meters or so. It starts out gently enough, and gradually becomes steeper, to the point where the grade is sufficient that the delicate balancing act of keeping the front wheel on the ground, while still maintaining enough weight back to drive the rear wheel takes all of my attention, and I just haven’t had enough leg-power to keep going, even if I could find that balance.

It’s taken weeks of attempts just to get to that certain point, marked by a pair of large oaks, standing like sentinels to the right of the path. It is at this point where I have continually come to a complete stop, having to concentrate on getting off the bike without both of us sliding back down the hill sideways; it’s steep enough to be just a little spooky dismounting. A few times, I’ve made the effort to walk the bike to the top, but more often, I’ve just turned around and enjoyed a speedy descent. I’ve never made it past those trees.

Until now.

The other day, feeling both strong and confident, I tried, once more, to attempt a ride up that hill. I approached as I always have, in low enough gears to make the final downshift into my granny gear possible, and built up as much speed as I could muster to carry me deeper into the ascent. I focused my attention, not on the trees, my previous drop-dead point, not on the top of the hill, but on a point just a few meters in front of me, and rode like nothing mattered, but the thought of getting a little farther, of breaking my own standing record. I really wanted to get past those damn trees.

The mental game is as important as strength in any sort of physical challenge like this. The focus, this time, was not on previous attempts, or on what I might have considered to be failures, but on simply realizing a new milestone. The goal was a realistic one. I didn’t set out to conquer the hill, but to get just a little farther up. I gave no thought to what would happen if I had to stop on a still steeper, spookier part of the grade, concentrating, instead, only on getting to the next step.

It wasn’t until the grade eased that I realized I’d made it. It had taken most of my muscle, leaving just enough to finish the ride up the more gentle, decreasing grade to the top. Heart pounding, legs burning like well-done roasts, I’d accomplished more than I expected. (That I could barely stand the next day is of little consequence. I’m young. I recover.)

Once again, we can learn lessons from observing the play of children, who will repeatedly and patiently try things without concern over success or failure. The two headed monster of a goal too far out of reach, and too much attention spent on previous failures to reach it, often sets us back farther than we realize, dooming our attempts before we start. We know this, intellectually, but often continue to operate in a mode which almost guarantees failure, rather than finding a piece that can be done, and reaching just a little past it. (Of course, there’s a thin line between the child’s tenacity and the adult’s insanity, which is marked by mindless repetition of precisely the same actions, whilst expecting entirely different results.)

I recall a little demonstration on of my Kung Fu teachers gave. it’s not new, nor particularly esoteric, but it taught a valuable lesson. He had us all line up, extend our right arm, and rotate anti-clockwise as far as we could, making a note of where we ended up pointing. Then, he had us close our eyes, and imagine ourselves easily and effortlessly rotating a full 180˚. When we repeated the experiment, every single person in the room was able to turn significantly farther than they did the first time. Try it. We can always reach a little farther than we think we can.

As an aside, the ride home was slightly blemished by having to dodge more glass on the roads than ever before. I truly do despise people who litter, in general, and specifically those who seem to feel that it’s completely acceptable to defenestrate trash, especially glass, from a moving vehicle. There’s a very special place deep within the brimstone perfumed bowels of the ninth circle of hell for those who throw bottles to crash into thousands of shards, like shrapnel by the side of the road. There, they will spend their eternity rolling naked in piles of their own broken glass, relieved of their perpetual suffering only long enough to repair the flats of poor bicyclists who have fallen victim to the malefactors’ thoughtlessness.

Fortunately, the Kevlar liners on my new tires do an adequate job of keeping the shards, mostly, at bay. Unfortunately, they still are not proof against the goat-headed bullrush thorns, and I managed to ride over a couple of those, yet again, on the way home. My front tube now has yet one more patch as a little trophy of my earlier triumph.

Today, find one of those things that seems overwhelming. Break it into a few smaller pieces, and take a stab at one of them, reaching just beyond what you think comfortable, or even possible. See you at the top.



  1. Roger Price said,

    Alot of food for thought. Thank you!

  2. Trilithon said,

    When we look at setting goals for ourselves, we shouldn’t look at what goal Bob set for himself. Goals should be very personnal. Goals are our way of validating that we are going forward into the world. I think that if I were trying to climb that hill, I would have been happy with inches of progress per day. But sometimes we have backsliding on a hill of that grade, too. Inertia and determination combine, but sometimes we lack one or the other.

    This post is a great post pointing out a common fallacy… that when we are trying to achieve a great goal, we can never doubt that we can achieve it. There are many out there who believe they can’t when they really can. There are many out there who believe they aren’t enough, when in fact, they are superior to what they believe.

    Beliefs hold us back, as Greg points out here. Beliefs are what compose our personality. Striving makes us real. Accomplishing makes us sated and therefore, lets us lose our perspective, unless we concentrate on it continually.

    Always strive for one more inch. Inches add up. Soon you will be there. Never be satisfied. JMO.


  3. Rob said,

    I have read this several times over in The Warrior Elite, which is a book that follows BUD/S class 228 through training. For those that don’t know, BUD/S stands for Basic Underwater Demolition/ SEAL training. This is where the men that desire to be US Navy SEALs will test that desire time and time again. It is amazing to read about guys my age, that have barely started truly living endure being cold wet and tired for 6 months just to get entry in the Teams. Hell Week for this is 5 days of just that, Hell. They got the first 72 hours without any sleep being made not only to survive and just get by or skim through, they must show they can perform in conditions like this. The author, an Ex Vietnam era SEAL, basically says that most men that quit during Hell Week do it because they get that first dose of in the beginning and think four and a half more days of this, HELL NO for me and they quit.

    I hope that when I get to that moment I will follow the advice such as this and excel. I know physically I can do it, but the mind is a powerful thing and physical preparation can only help so much. Thanks Greg.

    Sorry for the long reply all! Happy smoking!


  4. asaustin said,

    There is certainly a logical reason why the top universities are and always have been full of arrogant, pretentious bastards. The truth is that achieving remarkable successes is far more difficult for the humble and modest individual, who by definition downgrades his perceptions of his own ability and thereby limits the very possibility of achievement. Modesty is a virtue, yes, but exclusively in the social realm. To be overtly arrogant, even presumptuously so, allows one space and flexibility to stretch out and realize the true extent of his capability. Gandhi wouldn’t have gone quite so far as to admit it in such words, but I know he implies it in his autobiography.

    There is an article in a recent issue of Scientific American regarding the concept of genius and just how it’s attained. I don’t have the issue in front of me but I recall certain statistics revealing a bias within a group of accomplished athletes leaning toward those who began playing their sport when they were just slightly older than the majority of those in their division or club. This slight physical advantage instilled in them confidence which carried over, maybe even snowballed, throughout their development and into their professional careers.

    They knew they had it in them to be superior, and hence, they were. And still, they are.

  5. George Dibos said,


    What you describe is real, and manifests itself in several ways. The “external version” (for lack of a better phrase) is known as the “Pygmalion Effect,” or the “Rosenthal Effect.” Powerful stuff, but not clearly understood, primarily because of the of cause vs. effect issue.

    In all cases I’ve known, two things are certain, though: brilliant people and high achievers know that they are, and any protestations to the contrary are simply social niceties (sometimes even convincing ones); and such people don’t consciously disregard boundaries or expectations… they never consider them in the first place.

    Can one MAKE that outlook/attitude/whatever-it-is happen by choice? Or is it hardwired, like self preservation and sex drive. Good question. Greg’s bicycle adventure poses it implicitly, and well.

    Good Stuff, GLP. Keep it up. 🙂

  6. iansforest said,

    I enjoyed that one very much Greg, always a pleasure to read your thoughts on life and everything else! I hope to see somthing new soon on photography.

    Kind regards,


  7. Trilithon said,

    I think the gov’t might also balme it on smoking.

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