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  • Writer's pictureSJ Marcotte

Motorcycles, Growth, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves.

Updated: May 9, 2019

SJ's 1981 Honda CM400

The decision

Over the winter I decided to do something to stretch my comfort zone. I got brutally honest with myself and realized it had been years and years since I had challenged myself physically. My husband is an avid motorsports enthusiast - as well as a talented driver and pilot - who has made his mark in some of the top motor and aero sports arenas in the world, including the Reno International Air Races and the World Finals at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He's a professional air show pilot and loves racing and operating machines of all kinds. Admittedly, we have little common ground in this area. I'm a thinker. The cognitive realm is where I am at home and the world I excel in.

The background

I reached my adult height of 5' 11" in middle school and people assumed I'd play basketball. I never had any pressure from home - we're not an athletic family. Certainly others looked at me and would say: "You must be a basketball player!" (We're all guilty of these crazy statements at one time or another). In seventh grade I joined the basketball team at school. I enjoyed playing and quickly figured out that my physical strength was in blocking shots, not because I particularly understood the game or was strategic about it, rather, I towered over the other players and could simply put my arms up to create a formidable barrier to the basket. Twenty-nine years later and I still fondly refer to my middle school coach as "Coach" - she's winding down her teaching career and my husband and I both feel fortunate that our son has had the chance to build a relationship with her in his daily (and favorite) P.E. class at school. (Thank you, Ms. O.)

The realization

When I went on to high school I played on the J.V. Basketball team for one season. It was a mostly humiliating experience that included sitting the bench for most games. If we were down or ahead by a significant margin I might go in for the last minute or so of play. It became apparent that my tendency to over-think, and difficulty coordinating my physical and mental faculties made sports frustrating, at best. It was a fact I knew in my heart and it wasn't particularly disappointing. I simply shifted my focus more to those activities that I was passionate about and found my extracurricular comfort zone in band, chorus, art, and at the Career Center. Years later I would find resounding confirmation in the work of Marcus Buckingham as I began to understand consciously what I had known in the fiber of my being all along - my strengths are not necessarily connected to what I am (or should be) good at, rather they are those activities that make me feel strong, powerful, magnificent (as Buckingham would say). Ken Robinson refers to finding our element, in a similar vein of personal development work.

So, that was that. By about age 16, I set off on a path to explore the world around me through my passions. There are hundreds of stories between then and now, but I want to circle back to the present - you know, to motorcycles and growth.

The present

This past fall, my husband resurrected a 1981 Suzuki GS450L. He's a talented fabricator and skilled mechanic so it wasn't a stretch project for him. He used the GS project to practice his painting skills and the bike came out great! During the process a thought started churning in the back of my mind. Maybe I wanted a motorcycle of my own. We talked briefly about it and then I made up my mind: My year 41 accomplishment would be a motorcycle endorsement on my license! By January of this year I had my sights set on a late seventies or early eighties vintage Honda. In our house we don't buy new vehicles. Our combined skill sets and passions have made old vehicle resurrection and restoration part of our family culture. Our seven-year-old son says "we make cool things out of junk" and that's a fairly good summation of our family philosophy.

On a cold, snowy night in January we loaded up a decrepit 1981 Honda CM400 (the exact bike I was looking for) in the back of my minivan. It had been parked outside in the elements for years and had seen better days. We invested many winter nights in the shop stripping the bike down, cleaning it up, replacing and rebuilding parts, removing paint, spraying paint, sanding paint, buffing paint, running wires and cables, cutting metal, grinding metal, bleeding brake lines, diagnosing carb issues, fabricating custom components, cutting vinyl, testing and tuning. There's metaphor in the work of bringing a machine back to life - work that is not unlike bringing ourselves back to life - on some level or other - too.

She was a tired old girl in the snow...

...we stripped her down...

...we built her back up... she's vintage solid gold!

The commitment

The commitment to this bike included a commitment to learn to ride. I had been a passenger for many years. In fact, some of my favorite memories of our early friendship are connected to being on the back of my husband's motorcycle. But doing it myself - this would require me to overcome insecurities, some serious negative self-talk, and most importantly getting my mind and body working together without my brain shutting the whole thing down. I made my commitment public (I have found accountability to be a powerful tool).

The questions

Last Friday night I showed up at my local State Highway Department parking lot for the first session of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic Rider Course. I sat in my car and became acutely aware of the internal chatter running through my mind:

What if you're the only one who doesn't know what they're doing?

What if you're the only woman?

What if you can't shift?

What if you dump the bike?

What if you can't do it?

What if you cry in front of everyone?

What if you don't know an answer?

What if you realize this isn't for you?

What if you don't pass?

What if you make a fool of yourself?

You've probably had experiences that generate similar kinds of internal questions. Your questions will be linked (in part) to your past experiences in the same way the list above is linked to mine.

What if you're the only woman?

Oh, that's about that time I delivered a high-stakes training to a group of male VP and C-level employees and I bought into a narrative that I hadn't earned the right to be there...and it threw me off my game.

What if you cry in front of everyone?

Oh, that's about the time I backed down from a challenge because I was afraid of failing and I cried in front of my colleagues and it was mortifying. And before that it was about the time I didn't want my Mom to leave me at school in the first grade and I put my arms around her neck - and held on for for dear life - and couldn't stop the tears from flowing - and all my classmates were staring at me.

What if you make a fool of yourself?

Oh, that's about the time I took a snowboarding lesson and I never learned to snowboard because I wasn't able to negotiate the T-bar to get up the kiddy hill to even start.

Those reactions and the corresponding past experiences - those are linked in some way to expectations - internal and external - self-imposed, familial, and social alike. And those stories are not THE story. They are part of a bigger story. Whether I gave up or persevered - I survived all of those experiences and many, many more.

The action

You know what I did Friday night in my car? I shut off the switch. Hello, annoying little voice. Goodbye, annoying little voice. I literally visualized a switch and I shut it off. Okay, maybe the result is more like closing a door, but it cleared the noise. I simply chose to be as fully present as possible as I walked into that classroom. Turns out I wasn't the only woman, the oldest, or the least experienced - and everyone else had their own insecurities, too, even my eighteen year-old neighbor who has been racing dirt bikes for years!

The accomplishment

I'll wind it down...the bottom line is I passed! On Sunday evening I left with an M on the back of my license - and it was a big flipping accomplishment! There were moments over the weekend where I got stuck in my own head and moments where my experience paid off. There were times when I was completely confident and other times that I was convinced I'd have to start over the next time a course became available. And maybe that last thing WAS the big deal. ...times that I was convinced I'd have to start over next time... WHY? Because at no time did I quit or even acknowledge it as a personal option. In my past, quitting has been an easy out and a way to save face. But failure and quitting are not the same thing. Failure is part of learning and growing - quitting shuts learning and growing down.

The learning

So, I'm working my way up to some real road time on my Honda and here's what I learned in the process:

  • We don't have to succumb to old narratives. If the story is no longer true (or was never true to begin with) write a new one.

  • Taking on a challenge can be invigorating.

  • There is satisfaction and pride that comes with work completed with our own two hands (and the cooperative hands of others).

  • Making our commitments public adds accountability and increases the likelihood of follow-through.

  • When we were lined up by skill ability for a practice session on Saturday and the only three women in the Rider Course were at the back of the line - that was not a personal attack or a judgement against us or our gender - it simply reflected a complex story about (but not limited to) attitudes, experiences, access to experiences, and social norms.

  • Our passions can unexpectedly unite us with people we may otherwise never build common ground or relationship with.

  • Our ability to learn and grow is deeply connected to our attitudes and beliefs.

  • The people we surround ourselves with play a significant role in our ability to learn and grow.

  • Disrupting our "normal" can fuel growth.

  • We don't have to take a flying leap OUT of our comfort zone. The most rewarding growth just might come from finding the wall and putting a shoulder to it.

Update: after a conversation with a friend about this process, I'm reconsidering comfort zone expansion as a "welcoming and adding to" versus a "stepping out of". Thanks for the ah-ha, Angie!

Have you challenged yourself lately? What did you learn in the process?




Please be safe on the roads. Stay focused and present. Motorcycles are everywhere!

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