Building Self-awareness, and a Road Bike

My friend and I decided on a whim that together, we could build a bike. This experience has taught me more about myself than I could have ever imagined. Below is an abbreviated list for building self-awareness and a road bike. Take it as a call to action, to teach yourself something you were sure you couldn’t. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

Our work in progress
Our work in progress

Most skills come with a learning curve.  My building partner and I often become incredibly manic late in the night, long after the sun has set and Flagstaff’s more sane residents have gone to bed. The other night I  just pulled into my driveway when I got a call from her saying “Come back to Hilltop. I found a mountain bike in the trash.” We lifted the admittedly beaten up bike out of the trash and spent hours stripping it for parts. More specifically, for the brakes. Excitement was palpable in the living room that night. Then we were ready to talk about installation, so my partner did a little Googling. Turns out the recycled V brakes wouldn’t work on my caliper-fitted frame. We had to scrap the whole thing. There was a time not long ago when this would’ve felt very much like defeat. Yet since starting this project, “defeat” feels more like an exhilarating, if steep, learning curve.

Have patience. Timing is everything. When we had the old brakes striped off our curbside find, we were both very obviously itching to install them on our frame, but we just couldn’t without the right parts. So we had to wait. When you’re feeling a little manic, that can be a hard pill to swallow. It is easy to think, “But we want it NOW!”  Calling it a night is the only way to proceed when you have hit a wall. It helps restore energy, perspective, etc. Timing is everything. Take breaks, and trust that things will eventually fall into place.

The value of handiness. Those who know me well know that I will happily call myself the least handy person on the planet. I don’t own tools, and, up until recently, I didn’t see the value in knowing how to use them, primarily since I’m surrounded by plenty of people who do. In fact, when I agreed to this project, a friend asked, “So you’re basically building your own bike?” I sort-of-seriously joked, “No, Bea is building my own bike for me.” I’m pretty secure in my other skills, so why learn more? Here’s why: Tools rule, if you can use them. Few things in life have made me feel more self-sufficient than an allen wrench. I can still lean on others who are handier than I when necessary (see my next point), but there’s something to be said for using your own two hands, logic, and creative problem-solving to get a job done.

The precarious balance of independence and codependence. The friend who I’ve been doing this with, Bea, is truly fierce. She’s the type of person who can teach herself anything. I knew this to be an incontrovertible truth after taking two semesters of physics with her. She loves bikes, is the proud owner of a sweet vintage Schwinn Varsity, and thought the best way to teach herself more about bikes was to build one. I jumped on board because being in her presence this summer gave me a mild case of bike fever. While Bea leans towards total independence, I lean towards total codependence. I’m inclined to ask for help, even when I sense it’s something I could figure out on my own, given time and the internet. For example, I once had the option to pump my own front tire to 100 PSI. Not fully confident in my own ability to intuitively gauge what that felt like (despite having the rear tire to compare it to), I opted to wait until we saw our friend Elson the next day. Bea, on the other hand, is inclined to run herself into the ground with a task that requires a helping hand. This is evidenced by the time she painstakingly spent close to an hour trying to remove the seat post from my bike with nothing but a $7 adjustable Stanley wrench and iron will. No amount of human force applied to that particular wrench was going to loosen that rusty nut, but she refused to accept that it wasn’t happening. Between the two of us, I’ve seen the light. A balance of independence and codependence—and knowing which battles to pick—is pretty imperative in life and friendship.

You are capable. I often pigeonhole myself as someone with a very narrow, limited set of skills. Sadly, I think most of us do this to ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly, at some point. I can write about science with more precision and finesse than most people, have a knack for remembering verbatim quotes, and I make a mean chicken parmesan, but I tend to believe that’s roughly the end of my resumé. This simply isn’t true. While I fully accept I can’t be good at everything (e.g., rudimentary algebra and painting), I’m finding I can be good at more than I thought I could . Learning a new skill is rewarding, if you open your mind to it. You just might surprise yourself.

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Emily Litvack

Emily Litvack is a senior in microbiology and journalism at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She's a daughter, sister, friend, Jew, scientist, journalist, and feminist (not always in that order, and sometimes all at once).

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