We rolled out of the grocery store parking lot, the meet up, and shimmied along the shoulder of the road to where the trail banked away up the hill. I said to Rob, “I just don’t ride mountain bikes enough to be any good at it,” and he said, “You seem like a capable enough rider.”

On the face of it, this was a compliment, but as I pistoned away awkwardly at the pedals, I circled back to that word, capable, and sussed it for its true meaning.

I recall sitting in my college counselor’s office, her in a high-backed leather chair, me in the standard issue plastic bowl chair endemic to high schools the world over, and her saying, “Well, John, we should maybe readjust your expectations a little. Your test scores suggest you’re capable of a lot more than your grades bear out.” The ensuing paragraph is lost to me now, but it certainly included the words ‘underachiever,’ ‘wasted potential,’ and ‘lazy.’

I nodded not-sagely. I could see her point, but that horse had already left the barn. “What does it really take,” I thought, “to sit through a liberal arts degree anyway?”

I had not yet broken a sweat, winding up through the rocks and soft dirt of the first climb, when all of this crystallized in my mind. Unwittingly, Rob had called out one of my great struggles.

To be capable is good. It is always preferable to to the other option, that state which finds you prone in a ditch off the side of the road or trail waiting for heart rate and will to return. Capable connotes the intersection of ability and potential. It is the blue sky overhead, the capacious mind, the hot-burning fire of imagination.

The trick, and this is especially true if the well of capacity runs deep, is that it takes a long time and a lot of effort to hoist that heavy bucket of capability up and out into the sunshine. Capability is good, but when it’s not wed to the drive to explore its every depth and contour, college counselors go branding you a lazy, underachiever.

In the end, I secured a B.A. cum laude in philosophy at a well-respected private university. It would have been a complete waste of time had I not met my wife while there and been pushed to take composition classes with a wise and patient author, a man whose kindness as regards my then (and possibly still) immature prose-style launched me on this path you find me now.

Being a capable cyclist has also allowed me to log a lot of miles over a period of decades. Very few of them passed quickly, and rare is the person who has marveled at my great skill on the bike. I am capable, but maybe not a natural.

The things is, somewhere in my soul, I reject many of the measures of capability. I have usually not seen the point of achievements, at least as they are commonly measured: grades, degrees, race placings, bank balances. If you can have these things, they are nice to have. If you can not, there are other things to focus your energy on.

The things I aspire to, patience, decency, peace, acceptance, truth and love, don’t chart very well. The things I got out of school, out of cycling, out of life, were never likely to be quantifiable in a way that meant something to anyone other than me. Maybe this is the patent rationalization of an underachiever, or maybe it’s just a simpler, more realistic way to live.

I am capable of showing up, of behaving reasonably well, and of enjoying myself. As near as I can tell, that’s the whole game, the whole challenge. And if there is one great thing I have become capable of, it is seeing that, at last, no matter how bad I am on a mountain bike.

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. hoshie99

    You certainly don’t get points in this life for just being which is ironic and a little bit of a contrarian view.

    I think this article sums that up nicely. Bravo.

  2. Patrick O'Brien

    Nice. Reminds me of the Zen student who responded when asked why he rides his bike, “I ride my bike to ride my bike.”
    I think he got an A in the course. He was happy, then promptly forgot it. Kinda of like flowing through a tricky section of trail, but you don’t tell anyone.

  3. Ransom

    “To be happy” is a slippery goal. If you can figure out how to pursue it directly… I’m not sure how to finish that sentence. In any case, you probably know more than I can add to.

    On the other hand, all these other things which may not be The Point, at least provide direction, and help motivation. Like looking at points ahead on a long climb and then resetting to a new, higher point upon reaching them, they provide (relatively) manageable chunks of the pursuit of Living.

    I half-recognize that some of my larger endeavors are attempts to set myself up for the sort of small moments along the way which I enjoy. On the other hand, I do cherish completion of some milestones, despite the extent to which they may be existential trinkets.

  4. Mike the Bike PT

    The first step toward happiness is to let your definition of happiness be the definition. Letting others define happiness will, ironically, take you the other direction. Once you have defined happiness for yourself, let go of it and do not aim for it. It is strange how you tend to find what you are looking for when you are not looking for it.

  5. Chris

    You struck a cord today Robot. Contemplating sending this to my wife though she will probably remind me that I should be working instead of reading RKP.

  6. Mike Dublin

    I like it! Touches nicely on the age-old conflict between “success” in the conventional sense of achieving things and points and places, and that more personal and less recognised achievement of peace and love and family and decency.

    It’s good to be reminded once in a while though of what’s really important, instead of being bombarded by the adoration and idolisation of winners, or entrepreneurs or “slebs”. Because sometimes it’s difficult not to fall for it, not to question if what you’re doing in your life is worthwhile.

    For me, it’s a question of feel (and I’m not even going to try to relate that to riding a bike!), if it feels right then it probably is. If it feels wrong, if it feels unnatural then it’s time to re-think things.

    And despite not scoring as highly on the conventional achiever charts as my ability might predict, the longer I persevere with living my life my way the better it looks and the happier I am.

  7. C

    A very nice piece. Thank you.

    The problem with Us is that human beings are by nature linear thinkers, and competitive. These traits lead us into the trap of stepping towards simple, linear qualifications and accomplishments – like Uni degrees, accounting designations, and job titles. These accomplishemnts come with money, which is a badge to be worn, and shown to others.

    What is not a badge, or an accomplishment, is a simple act of decency or love. How can one be a valuable human being if you do not have title and money – you can’t measure love?

    But, as a wise man once said, the greatest of all things is Love. And riding.

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