Episode 5: Stuck on a difficult skill? The difficulty is how the light gets in

[Leonard Cohen music intro]

The birds they sang

At the break of day

Start again

I heard them say

Don't dwell on what

Has passed away

Or what is yet to be

Yeah the wars they will

Be fought again

The holy dove

She will be caught again

Bought and sold

And bought again

The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in 


That’s the distinctive voice of Leonard Cohen, a song called Anthem, from his 1992 album, The Future.

A guy named Peter Brown mentioned the refrain from the song at the end of an Art of Manliness podcast episode a few years ago. Peter is a co-author of a book that I’ve been reading called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Even though the book is based on years of research by several cognitive psychologists who were trying to understand what leads to better retention of new learning -- research, sounds pretty dry, right? -- it’s actually a great read because Peter’s not one of them. He’s a gifted storyteller that they brought in at the end of the project to write up the research findings so that average Joes and Janes like you and I would be more likely to find the results interesting and helpful.

Here’s Leonard Cohen singing the refrain:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in 

And here’s Peter Brown explaining that refrain’s relevance for him:

I would just like to say, I was very struck when Leonard Cohen the musician died recently, and I was re-listening to a lot of his music. He has this great stanza in one of his songs. He says, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” So when we’re out trying to find our way, and we stumble, instead of feeling like we’re losers, we got to say, 'Ah, there’s some information I can use. There’s light there. There’s information, I’m going to use that.'” 

Hey, welcome to the MTB Practice Lab. I’m your host, Griff Wigley, Mountain Bike Geezer, and this is a show about learning how to get better at practicing mountain biking skills with a few detours on other stuff I’m trying to get better at. 

This is episode 5 in which I tell you about my struggles to deal with my Be Good mindset as I try to learn to wheelie and some of the strategies I’ve started using to get more consistent with a Get Better mindset.

I’ve been learning that even with my overall Get Better mindset about learning to wheelie that I talked about in episode 4 -- if you’re practicing right, progress is inevitable -- there’s also a more granular mindset for me -- and maybe you -- that happens before, during, and after a practice session.

Here are six problematic examples of what my Be Good thinking tended to be early in April:

Before practice, thinking negative: I really struggled during practice on Monday. I wonder how long it’s going to take to get any better.

Before practice, seemingly thinking positive: I think I had a pretty good practice on Monday. I expect to do even better today.

During practice, thinking negative: Well, there’s the fifth fail in a row. I’m not going to even bother watching the video.

During practice, seemingly thinking positive: Oh, that felt great! I’m so glad I got that on video!

After practice, thinking negative: I didn’t see any progress at all today. I’m still stuck. Why is this taking so long

After practice, seemingly thinking positive: I saw progress today. Yeah, I really think I’m progressing now. I think I’ll put up the video.

All six of those are examples of my Be Good mindset. The seemingly positive thinking is just the flip side of the same Be Good coin. All are examples of how my thoughts can undermine my Get Better learning.

Earlier in the interview in that Art of Manliness podcast episode, Peter Brown says:

So I think it’s really important for people to interpret. It's how you interpret difficulty and setbacks. The difficulty isn’t the problem, it’s how you interpret that’s the problem. The difficulty is information.

I’ve got to bake that into my brain: The difficulty isn’t the problem. It’s how you interpret that’s the problem. The difficulty is information. 

In the past two weeks, I’ve tried to interpret my difficulties as information and attempted to first get more consistent with a Get Better mindset before, during, and after practice, one based on curiosity. Here are some examples:

Before practice: I’m looking forward to doing some fun drills today. But I have no idea if they’ll make a difference today, tomorrow, or next week.

During practice: Hmmm, that felt better. Was that because of what my knees or my eyes were doing? I’ll take a look at the video. I’ll keep experimenting.

During practice: Hmmm. The drill I was doing earlier doesn’t seem to be helping today. But if I was doing it correctly, then I may not see any benefit today. It might show up next practice.

After practice: I wonder if I’ll see any progress tomorrow from today’s session. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve just got to review my videos tonight and come up with a practice plan for tomorrow.

So those are examples of the kind of curiosity that I’m trying to bring to my practice sessions — before, during, and after—but of course I’m not too good at it yet. 


Of all the mental Be Good potholes that I’ve been hitting on this difficult road to learning to wheelie, I think the most insidious has been my thinking before, during, and after trying to see how many pedal strokes I can get. 

It’s so seductive for me right now -- even though I know that ultimately, distance -- total pedal strokes -- is the primary measuring stick for someone learning to wheelie.  It’s so hard for me to not be thinking if I’m going to get a good attempt, hoping, hoping, hoping. It’s so hard to not tense up at the moment of launch -- I reflexively hold my breath. It’s so hard to just be curious when I’m going for total pedal strokes.

… the difficulty isn’t the problem, it’s how you interpret that’s the problem. The difficulty is information. 

Thanks for the reminder, Peter. So this week (last week of April), I decided to limit my “let’s see how many pedal strokes I can get” attempts to five at the end of my practice session. And I also have stopped capturing videos of those attempts. I’m thinking that this will help me to remain more focused and curious, not fretting too much if I suck and not celebrating too much if I happen to have a good run. I’m curious to see if I can remain curious.

In the meantime, I’ve been deploying a few other wheelie practice techniques that are relevant for learning how to learn. Here’s one of them that I started earlier this month when I read this paragraph by Dr. Josh Turknett, the banjo-playing neurologist who I introduced in episode 4. He writes:  

“One of the secrets of this whole banjo learning process is that every step along the way is enjoyable as the last. I had just as much fun playing when I was first getting started as I do now. It's really progress, or improvement, no matter where we're at, that's the most rewarding thing. And so having a way of ensuring continued progress is the way to always keeping things fun and rewarding. It's when people stop progressing that they stop having fun, and when they're most likely to give up.” 

That prompted me to consider -- since I wasn’t progressing in any measurable way -- how might I find ways to keep my practice sessions genuinely fun? It dawned on me that the no-handed drills I’d started doing in late March to try to improve the four side-balance correction techniques taught in Ryan Leech’s wheelie course were actually quite fun. 

I started getting better at riding no-handed -- gradually able to go a little slower and turn a bit sharper, weaving around markers with better control. And so I decided to start and end every wheelie practice session with a couple of minutes of no-handed riding. I just focused on the fun, believing that someday, this fun drill will help my side-balance correction reflexes for wheelies. 

So that’s it for episode 5.  If you’re stuck at a difficult stage of any skill that you’ve been working on, I hope what you’ve heard will give some ideas on how to interpret that difficulty. 

Quick reminder: If you're enjoying my podcast and want to support my work, you can become a member via my Patreon page. Check out the details at MTB Practice Lab.com. I'd appreciate it. 

Lastly, if you have a question or a comment about this episode that you’d like to have me consider including in an upcoming episode, I’d love to hear from you. See the show notes on how you can contact me and leave a voice message.

Thanks for listening. 

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