Keep Your Eyes Where You Want to Go, and Other Life Lessons I've Learned from Motorcycling

“Look through the curve!” the instructor barked over the noise of motorcycle engines. I revved the throttle and looked ahead as I blazed past the cones. Here I was, clinging on for dear life and trying to pass the road test. Was I going too fast? I glanced down at the speedometer.

7 mph…

Everything’s faster on a motorcycle.

Last year I learned how to ride. As I look back on those early days when motorcycling seemed so unfamiliar and scary, I appreciate the small steps that have made me a more confident and seasoned rider. And as a firm believer in the value of connecting the dots and learning from different experiences, here are some life lessons that motorcycling has taught me:

Get Trained

Before I rode off into any sunsets, I needed to know how to operate a motorcycle. Taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course was essential in starting my journey; here I was able to practice on loaner bikes and have watchful eyes monitor my progress.

Similarly, when starting any new endeavor, it’s important to learn the correct things. My buddy Mark likes to say, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”. Getting taught by great teachers and mentors, whether they be people (dead or alive), books, courses, etc. is essential to make sure you unlearn any prior misconceptions and have a solid foundation upon which to build.

What’s something you’ve wanted to learn or get good at? Have you spent time and money to get trained? (And if you’re contemplating joining a biker gang, I highly suggest you take the MSF course first.)

Get Well-Equipped

“ATGATT: All The Gear All The Time”. This is a mantra that wise motorcyclists recite before mounting their steely steeds. And wisely so. There is inherent risk in motorcycling. No metal cage protects you (consequently, car riders are referred to as ‘cagers’ in the motorcycle community). Enter helmet, armored leather jacket, gloves, and sturdy boots. Sure, I may look like a Power Ranger when I ride, but then again, I’ve worked hard to cultivate my well-moisturized skin and chiseled physique. Being properly outfitted helps me concentrate and enjoy the riding experience that much more, knowing that I’m doing my best to ride safe.

So in whatever you do, whether it’s learning to play the guitar or to paint, having the right tools makes the entire experience more enjoyable. Buying a cheap guitar that has terrible intonation will only add to your frustrations as you begin. Having high quality brushes might not make you the next van Gogh, but it will certainly keep your mind focused on what matters most - creating good paintings.

Have a Support Circle

Something about motorcycles - the associated thrill and independence, the link between man and machine - captures my attention. On the road, it’s just you and your bike. However, I’ve also learned that motorcycling is a very tribe-based experience. There’s even something called the Secret Motorcycle Wave (SMW): whenever oncoming bikers pass each other on the road, they flash a salute of sorts, a casual-cool wave that signifies, ‘Hey bruh (or sis), I identify with you’. It’s a fascinating feeling, flashing the SMW to my brothers and sisters as I ride, my heart swelling with camaraderie-induced pride.

Also, friends have been essential in my riding experience. My riding friends helped me overcome my initial fears and challenged me to not become satisfied riding down the same old roads. Good friends inspire you to try and accomplish things you never thought you could do. Find people like that and befriend them (likewise, strive to become an encouraging friend). Your life will become fuller as you share memorable experiences in community.

Achieve Small Victories

I recently biked around Lake St. Claire, traveling from Michigan to Canada on my longest motorcycle trip yet. For me, that was a milestone - a culmination of the small victories I’d achieved like graduating past practicing in the parking lot, getting comfortable with road and highway speeds, learning to take corners safely, and internalizing the principles I’d learned in the MSF course.

Long ago, the philosopher Lao Tzu philosophized, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Sometimes I unduly focus on the distance separating me from a goal and I forget to appreciate the steps I’ve already taken. And in a culture where mostly big victories are celebrated, perhaps we should be more kind to ourselves and learn to give thanks for the small wins. Being mindful of keeping one foot in front of the other while staying aware of the bigger vision is something I’m trying to improve at, which brings me to the final point:

Keep Your Eyes Where You Want to Go

On a motorcycle, your eyes are one of your most valuable assets. Where you look is where you go. The flip side to that is called target fixation: the tendency to focus so much attention on an object that you increase your risk of colliding with it. The solution to target fixation is to widen your perspective and look further ahead. By broadening your viewing area, the slower things seem to move, allowing you to be aware of more potential hazards and opportunities.

Taking the time to write down what you really want out of life is important. Being mindful of your aspirations in different life areas relating to your body, emotions, relationships, finances, and spirituality will help you steer your time and energy wisely. I encourage you to write them out, as the very act of writing and seeing your goals with your eyes is like taking that first step.

On a motorcycle and in life, your body naturally wants to go in the direction you are looking. So where are you focusing your gaze? Remember, where you look is where you go. I wish you a safe and exciting journey.

James Issac

A whole new world, that’s where we’ll be.