Oh, Mary

Motorcycle Lessons for Businesses in a COVID World

April 29, 2020
Melanie Wilhoite

Look down, go down. Look up, stay up. These are life-saving phrases I learned in adventure motorcycle skills training that run through my mind whenever I am out on my dual sport motorcycle. Here are a couple more: The bike wants to stay up. And, banana, banana. These off-road motorcycling phrases, as it turns out, offer solid advice for small businesses trying to make it through our COVID-challenged world.

As businesses close, temporarily or permanently, and wrestle with employee layoffs, owners are wondering how they are going to make it. Even the much-vaunted Payroll Protection Program is for now of some little comfort, as it’s a loan that will hit the books as a liability that could take years to pay off. For a business owner, it takes underappreciated mental fortitude to weather such a crisis.

Lessons that have kept me (mostly) safe and upright on my motorcycle for the better part of three decades and saw me through some tough business times of my own, may help businesses weather these tough times, too.

First, look up, stay up. Look down, go down. In motorcycling, this simply means you go where your focus is. If you focus on the pothole, you will run into the pothole. Your head and body, and by extension the bike, follow the line you set with your eyes. If you keep your head up and look where you want to go, you stand a much better chance of avoiding the obstacle and continuing upright to your destination.

This is not just the power of positive thinking at work. Behavioral psychologist and University Professor Bernt Spiegel wrote about the phenomenon in his book The Upper Half of the Motorcycle: On the Unity of Rider and Machine. In it, he positions our brains and bodies as an extension of the machine, both working together as one. Simply put, the machine goes where the body, consciously or subconsciously, steers it. Likewise, business is an extension of the mind coupled with one’s skill, ability and will to persevere towards our goals. It will go in the direction that your mind points it, up, down, or sideways.

These are stressful times, to be sure. Stress can cause us to seize up and attempt to overcome struggle by forcing a solution to the situation-of-the-moment. This tactic won’t solve the larger problem, and it will tire you out. I’m a fan of positive self-talk to help get through short term situations of the “this too shall pass” variety. It’s definitely a thing; studies show that positive self-talk reduces stress.

Of course, business crisis, such as funding ongoing operating costs with dramatically reduced cash flow, won’t magically resolve itself by imagining a better future. For situations where there is no quick and easy way out, it’s reasonable to think in terms of a longer-term horizon and achieving a series of smaller goals one by one until the worst of it is through. Keeping your mind on what success looks like at the end of the path can diminish the power of fear that might otherwise grip you, and give you hope that, sooner or later, leads to a positive outcome. 

In motorcycling, once you commit to your line, you allow your confidence, skills and experience to take it from there. Work the throttle, clutch and brakes simultaneously and never look anywhere other than where you want to go. If you allow fear of the pothole to take over, it’ll take you a lot longer to reach your destination if you get there at all. Go ahead, freak out, complain, sob if you need to. Then pick yourself up and get going. You will emerge stronger and more resilient than before.

The bike wants to stay up. And you want to make it through the paralyzing business challenges you face. Motorcycles are well balanced machines, built to stay rubber-side-down and moving forward. The variable is the rider. If you attune yourself to what the bike wants to do, it will do it. This takes a level of competence, practice, and a whole lot of trust. Likewise, believe in yourself, your education, your skill, your experience, your instinct, and the way you are “built.” There are many ways to skin the proverbial cat. Just know that there are no wrong ways if you use your head, no matter what anyone tells you. Do your best. Just keep moving. 

Banana, banana. When you ride on dirt, you encounter rocks, ruts, sand, water, mud, wind, hail, lightning, thunder, and steep inclines and declines on tricky terrain. Sometimes obstacles are hidden, and you never see them at all. Thinking “banana, banana” as you ride reminds you to hold the handlebars loosely as if you’re trying not to squish ripe bananas. Let the front tire “go with” the obstacle rather than holding on tight and fighting it.

If you stiffen up, you’ll transfer the jolts to the entire bike rather than letting the front tire bounce over the obstacle and straighten itself out with a little rider input. If you throw the whole bike off by being too rigid, you guessed it, you’ll go down.

The metaphor is obvious. To avoid a crash, hold on loosely and guide the organization in the direction you want to go rather than obstinately trying to force your way through it. You may not end up at the exact place you imagined, but you’ll still be moving.

As we all go through the coronavirus epidemic together, let’s look up, be flexible, and bounce over the rocks. Change course as needed. Support local businesses where we can. We may not arrive at our original destination. We might end up somewhere better.