It’s Like Riding a Backwards Bicycle

Recently Destin Sandlin set out to learn how to ride a “backwards bicycle.” Here’s what his journey teaches us about adopting an outward mindset.

By the Arbinger Institute | February 13, 2018

When learning a new skill, a common phrase is, “It’s like learning to ride a bike.” We say this usually when that particular skill, once acquired, is nearly impossible to lose.

Most of us can remember how to ride a bike even after several years of not riding one. After a few wobbly seconds, something simply clicks in our brains and bodies—and we remember how to ride.

Which raises the question: Is it possible to unlearn how to ride bike? Well, yes! But it’s not a simple matter of forgetting, or “unlearning.” Rather, we must replace our deeply ingrained knowledge with something else. We must learn a new, similar, process.

Much like learning and unlearning to ride a bike, we can learn and unlearn mindsets.

The Backwards Bicycle

Destin Sandlin, an engineer best known for his educational video series on YouTube, Smarter Every Day (SED), dedicates one video episode to his experience learning to ride a “backwards bicycle.” You can watch his video here.

Here’s his story.

A friend decided to play a trick on Sandlin and gave him a bicycle engineered to turn the front tire in the opposite direction from the handlebars. Every time Sandlin turned the handles left, the front tire went right—and vice versa.

You might think it would take only a few minutes to adjust to this minor difference. But it turns out the challenge is much more complex than it might seem. Several intricate processes—balance, coordination, steering, pedaling, and more—come together in the action of riding a bicycle. Our brains must precisely direct and coordinate each of these complex processes, meaning that learning how to ride a backwards bicycle requires a complete rewiring of the neural pathways associated with bike riding.

Sandlin was up to the challenge. For five minutes each day, he practiced riding the backwards bicycle down his 50-meter driveway—failing (and falling!) again and again.

After eight long months, Sandlin finally rode the backwards bicycle. He says there was a moment in which he could feel a pathway in his brain unlock. It took some time to achieve real competence, but with perseverance he finally mastered riding the backwards bicycle.

Unlearning to Ride a Bike

It came as a surprise, then, when Sandlin tried to ride a normal bike and discovered he couldn’t!

After years of riding a normal bike, his mastery of the backwards bicycle undid this skill. Sandlin shows footage of several minutes when he simply could not ride a normal bicycle.

Until, that is, his brain once again “clicked” and remembered how to ride a normal bicycle.

What Are Sandlin’s Take-Aways from the Backwards Bicycle?

First, knowledge and understanding are not the same thing. We may intellectually know how to do something while not fully understanding how that something works. For example, Sandlin knew how the backwards bicycle worked: simply turn the handlebars in the opposite direction of where he wanted to go. However, this knowledge was very different from actually being able to ride the bike—from understanding, in his body, how to execute that skill.

Second, our brains have incredible neuroplasticity. We can rewire our brains to fundamentally change the way we operate in the world. As we get older, this rewiring becomes more difficult but remains possible. It just takes a lot of persistence.

Third, riding a backwards bicycle took considerable focus—especially in the beginning. Until he mastered the skill, a distraction as small as his cell phone ringing could cause Sandlin to revert to his “normal” bicycle riding style and fall off the backwards bike.

What Are Our Take-Aways from the Backwards Bicycle?

We can apply these lessons to other processes that take place in our brains—such as our mindsets.

Arbinger’s work focuses on moving from an inward mindset to an outward mindset. With an inward mindset, we are self-focused. With an outward mindset, we see others as people who matter like we matter. An outward mindset allows us to be far more effective in our personal and professional lives (read more here.)

Most of us want to adopt an outward mindset, once we understand it and its benefits. But this might be an instance when we have to make the distinction between knowledge and understanding. Knowing about an outward mindset is different from understanding it: Actually adopting and implementing an outward mindset is a journey. We make progress and experience setbacks.

But like riding a backwards bicycle, a little bit of effort each day can go a long way. It took Sandlin only five minutes per day to learn to ride a backwards bicycle.

We can follow Sandlin’s example. We might not be able to suddenly have an outward mindset all the time. But we can set goals to have an outward mindset in the next meeting, or tonight at dinner, or just for the next 20 minutes. These small but consistent efforts help us build facility in operating with an outward mindset.

Sandlin also reminds us to stay focused when starting out. Just like something as slight as a cell phone ring could make him reverse to the old neural pathway of riding a bike, we can easily veer from an outward mindset back to an inward one. Adopting an outward mindset requires consistent effort and determination. When we slip into an inward mindset, we can catch ourselves and re-dedicate ourselves once again to having an outward mindset.

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the longer Sandlin rode the backwards bicycle, the harder it was to return to a normal bicycle. The same is generally true of learning an outward mindset. The more we operate with an outward mindset, the more natural it feels. It starts to feel unnatural, uncomfortable, and more difficult to slip into an inward mindset.

So the next time you think you’ll never achieve your goal of having an outward mindset, just remember—it’s like riding a bike.