I had something of an epiphany-in-practice in the bike shop the other day, but for me to say I’ve changed is probably a little strong. It’s one thing to curtail behavioural tendencies once, and quite another to turn the exception into the rule. Nonetheless, a one-off victory is significant because it shows a starting point, an awareness and a desire to improve oneself, and in that context I want to share the plot-twist I instigated while working on a couple of bikes with faulty coaster brakes.
Coaster brakes are the kind of brakes that most of us grew up with, the kind where you pedal backwards to slow down, or to do a sweet skid. The braking mechanism and brake pads are situated in the rear hub of the wheel, where the axle is. Adding to the complexity of the first repair job was an internal 3-speed drivetrain, meaning that the different gears, or cogs, were also built into the rear hub. Furthermore, I had never taken an internal-geared coaster brake hub apart before.
When called upon to perform a repair I’ve never done before, my automatic response is to become anxious and impatient. What happens then is that at the very time I need to be paying attention and working carefully, I am, quite regrettably, scatter-brained and reckless. With some thought and study, I’ve come to see that the impetus behind this very counter-productive approach is an insecurity with not knowing. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, I’m focusing on the fact that I’ve never done it before, and letting the immensity of all I don’t know paralyze me. Anticipating this knee-jerk reaction, however, I was able to change my mindset on this particular job.
Instead of thinking of the repair job as a pop-quiz, I approached it as more of a research expedition. I dialed in my focus and attention, as well as I could, noted the orientation of each piece as I meticulously disassembled the hub, and placed each part in neat succession on the bench. After cleaning and re-lubing the parts I put the hub back together – and nothing worked. I sighed, dug into my reserve tank of fortitude to bypass the frustration and hopelessness, and took the hub apart again to find my error. It turned out that a lock washer hadn’t clicked in place, so I set it in its rightful position and put it all back together. This time everything worked like a charm – a clean, well lubed, gear-changing, coaster braking charm. And with this heavily weighted vote of confidence, I moved on to the next coaster brake job.
The second hub I worked on was simpler, it was on a single-speed kids’ bike, but required extensive cleaning. Being a coaster brake repair veteran now, I had the hub disassembled, cleaned, lubed, reassembled, and functioning perfectly in record time. Because I was new to the work, however, and since it was a slow day, I decided to disassemble and reassemble the hub one more time to further understand how these hubs function, again with equal results. The combined experience of patiently finding out how coaster brake hubs work, and then applying that knowledge efficiently later highlighted an important contrast I would do well to keep in mind.
Part of my anticipatory anxiety concerning unfamiliar repair work is justified, for it really is hard to fix something when you don’t know how to. The important distinction my sporadically reliable brain hit upon this particular day, however, was that although it’s hard, and quite unlikely, to know everything you want to at the precise time you want to, learning one thing at a time is quite easy. By approaching the first hub with the mindset to learn about it, I changed my focus from not knowing the answers, to finding the answers. Moreover, I suspended the end-result type questions in my mind, and replaced them with something of an open-ended curiosity that slowed down the process, both in practice and in my mind.
The nice thing about approaching areas of inexperience with a learning mindset is that there is no immediate verdict of success or failure. When I put the first hub back together and it didn’t work, it simply meant that I wasn’t done learning about internal-geared coaster brake hubs yet. When I found my error, an important step in repairing these hubs became more permanently ingrained, reducing the likelihood that I would make the same mistake.
A short time ago, I read about an elementary school teacher who was assigned a particularly difficult class in a poor, inner-city neighbourhood. Every student was performing well below the national average, and this had been the norm for some time. Among the host of ingenious and effective changes she brought to her class, the teacher opted never to mark an assignment as “Fail” because these kids had been trained to think of themselves as failures. Whether at home, at school, or from the media, these kids were conditioned to see themselves as screw-ups and she didn’t want to reinforce that notion. Instead of “F” she marked said assignments with “N/Y” – Not Yet.
I don’t know a more promising, or accurate, way to approach the unfamiliar tasks/choices/situations that come my way than to say, “It’s true, I don’t know what I’m doing here – yet!”
And now you know too.