Having a Mental Block with a Thorny Woodworking or Start-Up Problem? Get on the Bike!

mountain bike maintenance
The Happy Machine Getting Some TLC

One of the hazards of being a maker is hitting the occasional mental block.  These blocks can strike woodworkers and entrepreneurs alike as we discussed in our earlier post about Clauzewitzian fog and friction.  Should we throw up our hands in despair and gnash our teeth?  Absolutely not!  There are tried and true methods to power through mental blocks and one sure fire cure is a bicycle ride.  You may be thinking “what on earth is he talking about?”  But think back to when you were a kid.  What were your memories of riding a bicycle?  Most likely it was a terrific sense of speed racing down hills.  Or the feel of the wind in your hair.  Or having an incredible feeling of freedom as you expanded how far you could ride away from home.  Does anyone ever have bad memories of riding a bike as a child?  So why don’t we ride more as adults?  Good question.  We should ride more because it’s a great cure for what ails us in the wood shop or as an entrepreneur.

I started out calling my bike “Gary” because it was a Gary Fisher mountain bike.  When I told Mrs Woodworker I was going for a ride I’d say “Gary and I are going for a ride.  See you in an hour!”.  Now I call it The Happy Machine because I’m almost always happy after a long bike ride.  It must be the endorphins (or the speed, or the wind through the hair, or riding far from home).  The Happy Machine is almost guaranteed to increase joy and help solve problems.

I’m finding whatever thorny problem I’m facing in the wood shop or as an entrepreneur is usually solved on a bike ride.  And I’m not the only one.  Brent Bellm was the head of Paypal Europe for 4 years and is currently CEO of a company called Bigcommerce.  Here is what he had to say about the magical quality of bicycle problem solving in the Apr 2016 issue of Inc Magazine:  “Every autumn, he ramps up of the Texas State Road Race cycling championship.  Las year, he finished fifth overall and third in his age group.  But to him, bike riding is more than mere competition.  ‘If there’s a problem at work or in my personal life, or an issue that needs to be resolved, that’s what my mind gravitates to.’ Bellm says. ‘It will work it through until it’s done.’ ”

One of the dilemmas we were facing in Traughber Design recently was improving the way we cut curves into our pieces.  It sounds easy, but in practice is not quite so straightforward.  I hopped on the bike and thought through some of the courses of action.  One thought was to just freehand the curves.  Another was to buy some french curves, but then you are limited to the size of curve you have purchased.  Another was to make something called a fairing stick.  The ride clarified that I should experiment with the fairing stick and see how it worked out.  It worked great!

Some of the most successful Americans in our history used cycling to recuperate and recharge their physical and mental batteries.  In Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, he writes how Rockefeller’s doctors ordered him to rest in June of 1891 because he was overworked.  J.D. was in his early 50s at this point and was physically and mentally exhausted from building his business empire.  To recover, Rockefeller spent 8 months at his Forest Hills estate doing manual labor with his workers in the fields, cycling, and going for long walks.  Rockefeller said in one of his letters “I am happy to state that my health is steadily improving.  I can hardly tell you how different the world begins to look to me.  Yesterday was the best day I have seen for 3 months.”  Cycling was part of the cure to clear the fog from this titan’s brain.

There can be a lot of excuses for not cycling, but most can be mitigated:

If it’s cold, layer up.

If you’re too tired, sometime you have to give energy to raise your energy level.

If you don’t have enough time, you can’t find a half hour during the week?  Really?

What problem has cycling helped you solve recently?  Let’s hear from you.