Mountain biking is my favorite way to unwind and refocus following a long week with a client. Through years of enjoying the focused solitude that the sport provides, I have been able to draw many lessons from the trail that help in business.
I hope that some of these realizations either help you better endure THE day-to-day grind or inspire you to hit the trail.
Either is a win in my book!
1. Where you’re looking is where you’re going: Focus on the trail, not the obstacles
When on the trail, new riders are often coached to focus on the trail, and not the rock/ root/bird on the trail. Because, if you do, you will hit it (or, in the bird’s case, it WILL fly away.)
In business, when we set out to make a change, the same advice holds. If you become distracted by the discomfort of the change, you will never get where you want to be. Focus on the outcome, and the obstacles along the way will be “things” to work through and move past.
To better endure a ride (or crash) you need to stay relaxed. Your body acts as a shock absorber. If it is tense, you are going to take unnecessary abuse. When riding in a rigid position, it works against the bike’s suspension and causes fatigue. In a crash, a relaxed body can be the difference between an accident you walk away from, and one that lands you in the ER.
Much drama (and trauma) in business can similarly be avoided if we apply the same principle.
Unless the issue at hand is going to cause loss of life or cost an obscene amount of money, it probably is not that big of a thing. Even in the direst of circumstances, problems are easier to overcome when cooler heads and logic are allowed to prevail.
Focus on what is in your realm of control, assume positive intent, and relax.
3. Try different disciplines to improve your skills
Throughout my cycling career, I have tinkered in Motocross, BMX Racing, Freestyle BMX, Mountain Biking, and Road Cycling. Participation in each of these disciplines has helped me to become more competent and efficient on the trail.
In business, especially for those who aspire to thrive in the c-suite, we need to collect a portfolio of experiences. This breadth of knowledge of how different areas of business and industries operate provide unique points of reference to triangulate when addressing new and complex problems.
By limiting oneself to a single discipline, you may become an expert in that area, but the maturity of that specific discipline will define your expertise. Without other points of reference, it becomes nearly impossible to become a thought leader or innovator.
4. Don’t go easy on yourself – try different trails (fight complacency)
If a rider only rides a single trail, before long, the rider will master that trail. But, what happens when that rider eventually tries a different trail? Suddenly, the confidence and skill associated with the one trail erode and the rider reverts to a state of lesser proficiency.
The same thing can happen to us professionally. If we do the same things in the same area for too long, our skills begin to stagnate. If, for example, a software developer maintains a single application for years on end, he or she may be an expert in that application. However, if that same developer is forced to move to a new application, his or her ability to add value will be limited by the skills they developed maintaining the old app.
Do yourself a favor and practice exercising your skills to solve as many different types of problems: challenge yourself. What you don’t want to do is choose the same old things because it is easy.
5. Have a Practice Partner (Mentor)
When cycling, you will only ever be as good as the people with whom you ride. If nobody in your group is doing a new drop/climbing faster/riding further, neither will you. To improve your skills, you need to ride with people who are better than you.
Professionally, you will only ever be as good as the people surrounding you. If you have a specific career goal, find a mentor who has already reached where you want to go. They know what it takes to be successful, and most people are more than excited to help someone else achieve their goals.
6. Keep your hands on the bars, not the brakes
There must have been an article in a magazine at some point suggesting everyone keep a finger or two on the brake lever because everyone does it. This practice is horrible, especially for newer riders. Every time the rider goes over a bump or drop, the reaction is to grab some brake.
Annoying outcome: you slow down when you didn’t need/want to.
More likely outcome: you’re going over the bars.
A better technique for risk mitigation is to learn to control your bike and body, and brake intentionally.
We see the same thing in business. We keep our foot on the brake of process/change /development/innovation because we are worried about upsetting someone. As a result, we slam on the brakes any time we encounter some resistance.
Do you think that Elon rolls this way? I guarantee NOT (recoverable rockets, anyone?)
Change and innovation are hard. We are going to run into problems, and we are going to run into resistance. Instead of succumbing to every scenario and producing lame outcomes, we instead need to focus on building resiliency to allow us to grow, and also to learn when braking is appropriate.
7. Speed is your Friend
Going fast can be scary, but it can also be the safest way through a technical trail. Thinking about a drop that you went down too slow, and as a result, got caught on a rock/root/hole that you otherwise would have rolled over.
We run into the same issues in business when we try to spend too much time building consensus, over-communicating, or assessing risk. These slowdowns can often surface obstacles or detractors that otherwise would never have surfaced.
Much like there can be such thing as “too much” or “too little” speed on the trail, we can encounter the same in business. Too fast can cause issues, but so can too slow.
8. Be Strong and Flexible
When climbing, you want to stay in the saddle. When working a technical descent, you want to drop your seat, keep a good body position, and balance on your pedals. Understanding the mechanics of various techniques, and when to employ them, makes us stronger, safer, and more experienced riders.
The same can be said for business. We need to understand when to be strong and steadfast in decision making, and when to be flexible to incorporate the thoughts and ideas of others. Neither position is correct all of the time, so we need to learn to master both, and deploy each technique as appropriate.
9. Think Positive
If you stand at the top of a drop and think you’re going to crash, you are better off walking it, because guess what: you’re going to crash. The power of thought never ceases to amaze me.
How often do similar patterns emerge in business? We think that something won’t work, and then it doesn’t. Not always because the idea or solution was terrible, but because we had a bias of the solution, and our brains subconsciously steer our actions toward satisfying that bias.
Think positive, keep an open mind, and allow yourself to be surprised.
10. Remember your Successes|
Athletes are hard on themselves. A tendency to focus on one’s shortcomings without celebrating the process can take the fun out of a sport quickly. Focus on the miles logged and technical progress made, and you will be excited to tackle the trail the following weekend.
Professionals are equally as hard on themselves. Often focusing on what did not go well, and rarely celebrating the victories.
Give yourself a break! You’re a pretty fantastic human.
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