You’re Doing Everything Wrong and Other Lessons from Amateur Bicycle Racing

I looked bizarre. Any time you sweat profusely in a setting where no one else is, you will stand out. This was a bit more. I was two-tone. The sunscreen had all run down into my five o’clock shadow, making it look like a lazy application of clown paint. The top of my face was startling red, each capillary trying desperately to cool me off. From sweat and effort, my eyes were bloodshot to match my skin. Gnats dotted my face and arms. And I was wearing all spandex.

There are places where this is more acceptable. A corner gas station in rural Kentucky is more on the not side.

The surprising thing is that these people were kind to me. As soon as I walked in, the woman behind the counter pointed to the fountain drinks and said, “Get you some cold water to drink.” The man in sturdy work boots filling his cup nodded grimly as I walked by, as if acknowledging that we were just a couple guys putting in a hard day’s work.

Moderately confused, I sat on the curb outside and did what any reasonable person would do. I ate a heavily preserved donut and took stock of my life.

Some of the guiding principles that have stuck with me in life and business have come from riding a bicycle in all weather. And they are often surprising.

You Don’t Have to Be the Best

It is common advice in business books to find the thing you can be the best at and pursue it. I have bad news. Likely, there isn’t anything you will be the best at. And that is okay. If you wait to be the best, you will never start. If you think that you are the best, you won’t take risks. I certainly wouldn’t have started a design company if I was hung up on being the best. I wouldn’t have started bike racing as a nearly 40-year-old man. Both have been great fun and have become an important part of my life.

You Don’t Have to Be Passionate About What You Do

Passion can make it hard to have perspective. It is easy to inflate what you are doing, to become overly invested. It is hard to know when to stop. And, practically, if you are passionate about something, you probably want to stay that way. I have found the best way to hate something you love is to do it for a job. I rode from Indianapolis to Maine one time. We were on a time crunch, so we had to pack in the miles and there weren’t many days off. By the end, we weren’t jumping out of bed excited to get back on the bike. It had become a job. It was a grind.

Suffering is Good for You

It’s a funny thing. Sort of like exercise, suffering in little bits conditions you for the heavy suffering. It doesn’t make it more fun or meaningful. But it makes it tolerable. And one thing I have learned is that when you are suffering, the most important thing to remember to make it through is that you know you can tolerate it. There will be times when you can’t sleep because something in your business is going badly. You might not be able to eat. There will be times when someone is angry, and you have to just sit and take it. In the moment, you will be tempted to avoid the suffering. Don’t. See it clearly. Fix the problem and move on.

Just Work Hard

I do feel obligated to provide a counterpoint to the first two points I have made here so that this doesn’t come across as reckless. While you don’t have to find something you are best at or the most passionate about, you do have to find something you are willing to work really hard at. This is why most businesses fail. Most people don’t want to work that hard. The analogy breaks down a little here. Does it really matter if I work really hard as an average amateur biker racer? Probably not. If I finish 70th or 71st in a mountain bike race, no one cares. But the place isn’t really the point. If I hadn’t been willing to work hard, I wouldn’t be at the starting line. While that might not matter to anyone else, it matters to me. I am actually pretty proud of it.