The summer after high school, my friend Tuan and I rode our bikes from Philadelphia to Bar Harbor, Maine and back, about 1,500 miles. We were both sixteen at the time.
The trip was amazing — not that I remember many details anymore… quite an independent experience for kids that age. Everything went great. An amazing growth experience. We mostly found random places to camp, but also stayed in back yards, farms, parks, … even a home for runaways when we were stuck in Poughkeepsie (finding free places to stay in cities was harder and it was hard to cross the Hudson otherwise).
Anyway, I’m writing today to share a lesson I learned then that has stuck with me ever since.
One day we were riding, I think in the Delaware Water Gap, on a long, steady incline. At the bottom of the incline I was riding fine. After a while I got tired, so I shifted to a lower gear — meaning each pedal stroke was easier but got me less distance.
The incline kept on. After another while I was more tired. I downshifted again, each stroke was easier again, but taking me yet less distance.
The incline kept on. I eventually dropped into the lowest gear on the bike. Even though the incline was shallow, after enough time I couldn’t pedal any more.
But being in such a low gear on a shallow incline is demoralizing. With each pedal stroke taking me almost nowhere, there wasn’t much point in continuing. You wonder if you should go on or maybe just start walking.
Until I did something at the time counterintuitive. I don’t know why, but I shifted back up to my original gear. Suddenly I was cruising along much faster — as fast as I was at the beginning.
And I found I had the energy to keep going — not just going at all, but significantly faster. I had way more energy than I expected.
The problem with pedaling in too low a gear on a shallow incline isn’t that it exhausts your muscles. You think it does when you keep downshifting. The bigger issue is that you get demoralized. You lose hope.
When I got back up into a gear my muscles could handle comfortably, the exhilaration of the wind and ground going past me re-motivated me.
The lesson I learned is that sometimes it’s easier to work harder. Lack of stimulation is demoralizing, which you can confuse with lack of energy in your muscles, but it’s not the same.
Less than a year later, in college, I took a semester with three classes. The average is 4.5 to graduate, so I had a significantly lighter load than most. My grades suffered. I just never got into the mode to do well in class. Every subsequent semester I took more classes and got better grades. Same lesson.
I see people not trying in life or taking it easy and losing hope or having low expectations of themselves. Sometimes it’s me. I’m ever grateful to my chance shifting up to learn that working harder can be easier and more rewarding.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees