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If You're Tired of Pedaling Faster, Change Gears

Look For Untapped Resources to Support Your Leadership and Your Life

I am not an athlete. I don’t exercise as much as I should. I don’t jog, and I certainly don’t run races. I do, however, like to ride my bike. Not super aggressively, mind you. I’m not one of those folks you see out on the weekend barreling along at breakneck speed, decked out in colorful jerseys and wearing those funny bike shoes that make you walk like an ostrich. No, just give me a pair of shorts (not those shorts), a t-shirt, and a helmet and I’m ready to hop on my bike and hit the road.

It’s a pretty good bike, actually, purchased used years ago from a friend who is really into biking and needed to get rid of one so that he could get a better one. It has 10 speeds, not that it matters. You see, I was quite satisfied with 5 speeds, thank you very much. Yep. Five is all I need. You likely know the setup. My bike has the typical layout of 2 gear handles, one on each side of the frame. You cycle through gears 1 through 5 using the right-side handle and, well, I guess you must get to 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 using the left handle. Whatever. I don’t go there.

I have this vague, untested idea that using those gears actually makes things harder. Pedaling gets progressively more difficult as you move up, and 5th gear is hard enough and lets me go fast enough. Once I’m in 5th, if I need to go faster, I just pedal harder. And it’s not as if going from 5th to 6th is the same as going from 4th to 5th. Oh no.

Whereas moving through gears 1 through 5 only involves the rear wheel sprocket thingy, progressing beyond 5th means that the chain must disengage from the smaller front sprocket and switch to the larger one, so this involves much more movement and sound, and well, commitment. And who needs that when things are good enough now?

It was against this backdrop that a few years ago, for some reason, I signed up with a friend for a 50-mile charity ride in Palm Springs. 50 miles! While that may sound like nothing to you cyclists out there, for someone who had never ridden more than 20 in a single day, and who had not really ridden much in years, this was a stretch. So I trained, riding several times a week and carefully increasing my mileage each time. And although I never actually rode 50 miles at one time prior to the weekend of the ride, I did feel pretty confident that I at least could survive it.

The day of the ride arrived and I somewhat nervously joined with the 1500 or so other riders who swarmed the staging area, their bright jerseys forming a sea of color. (I, on the other hand--for some unknown reason--was wearing black from head to toe.) I marveled at their bikes, equipment and accessories, not to mention those funny shoes. So off we went and lo and behold, things were fine. It was a nice 5-gear ride through the nice, flat dessert.

A couple of hours later, having gotten through 2/3 of the ride, I found myself gliding along the mostly flat and mostly smooth streets of Palm Springs, happy with my accomplishment. It was at that moment when my attention turned to that left-hand gear handle. Hmm, I thought. I trained for and have so far survived most of a 50-mile bike ride. I wonder what would happen if I tried those other 5 gears. You know, just for a minute, with no one around. I looked around to see if other riders were getting ready to pass. No. Any hills or curves coming up? No. Any cars or intersections in my way? No. Any other pressing life issues I should think deeply about before I do this? No. I looked down at the handle. Then up again at the road. Down at the handle. Up at the road. Down. Up. Rinse and repeat. (Geez, just grab the damn handle!) OK, I can recover if this doesn’t work, right?

I grabbed the handle and moved it, causing the chain to dutifully respond and engage the larger front sprocket, ready to move the lever back to its rightful position at a moment’s notice if need be. Rattle, click…

Hey! It’s ok so far! In fact, if I didn’t know better, it seems to actually be (dare I say it?) an improvement. Rather than making things harder, pedaling became easier, as the chain’s configuration was actually now better matched to the riding conditions and to my ability. I actually did not have to pedal as fast or as hard to go the same speed, and was therefore going further with less effort. And then I swear I heard my bike reminding me that I had had these gears available to me all along, and it was glad I finally decided to use them.

And for the rest of the ride, as I tried out gears 6 through 10, I thought about what other areas of my life I might be using only a fraction of my abilities. Where else do I have another gear handle standing at the ready, if only I would realize it and then take the step of engaging it?  

What about you? Are you finding yourself in a place of struggle, trying to pedal ever faster and not feeling like you’re getting as far as you would like? My guess is that you have strengths, abilities and other resources that you have not fully engaged and that you have in fact only scratched the surface of your potential. You’re in 4th gear, when it’s 7th gear that may be called for.

You may be living a 5-speed life on a 10-speed bike!

So what can you do about it? Here are 3 things:

  1. Take 5
  2. Take inventory
  3. Take action

By “Take 5” I mean to step back and get really clear on what you want to accomplish. This can be a big, audacious life goal, a smaller thing, such as figuring out how to fit more exercise into your life, to something even more mundane (like how to go further on a bike with less effort). Come to think of it, maybe it’s more like “Take 30.” Spend 30 minutes writing down exactly what it is you want to do or be. Write it in the present tense as if you have already accomplished it and you are now experiencing whatever “it” is. Get detailed. Have fun. Do not write down how you have accomplished this (unless you really want to). The reason for this is that we don’t want you to get bogged down in the “how,” just to revel in the “what.”

“Take inventory” simply means that you will want to figure out what resources you have or can gather that will help you get to the place you described in step 1. Be creative here, and don’t forget to include people, things, and ideas. If you get stuck, think about people who have been a positive influence in your life. What would they say? Or think about other goals in your life that you have already reached. What resources helped you there? Chances are, similar (or even the same) resources can help you with this new endeavor.

Finally, and not surprisingly, you must take action. Notice I didn’t say, “Think about taking action” or “Journal about how great it would be if you took action.” Sorry. There comes a point at which the rubber must indeed hit the road. So write down what the end state is (i.e., your goal) and where you are now, and then in bullet point format, write down the steps you know (or are guessing) will get you from where you are to where you want to be. And know that this list may well change over time as you take action and learn more. Then look up, down and around, cross your fingers and say your prayers, and take that first step! As Joseph Campbell has said,

I have found that you have to take that one step toward the gods, and they will then take ten steps toward you. That step, the heroic first step of the journey, is out of, or over the edge of, your boundaries and it often must be taken before you know that you will be supported.

--Joseph Campbell

The ride in Palm Springs reminded me that we can do more than we think we can, if we will just take the time to figure out what we want, take stock of our internal and external resources, and then be willing to take that first step of action! 

You can do this, because I did it. And I didn’t even have to wear those funny bike shoes. Sheesh.

What resources might you be overlooking that you can apply to your own Leadership or to your life more broadly? Feel free to comment below!