The Importance Of Being A Lifelong Beginner

When you dismount a mountain bike going uphill, you end up doing a sort of bow. As you step off and swing a leg over the seat, your head naturally points down as you are admitting that the trail has you beat, this time.

After years of saying “I suck at fast/gravity/downhill sports,” I bought a mountain bike a few weeks ago. I have two goals:

1) I will not crash my new mountain bike hard enough to break anything on my body.

2) I will ride my new mountain bike enough times in the next year that its expensive-to-me-but-apparently-relatively-inexpensive-in-the-world-of-mountain-bikes price feels like an investment and not a foolish endeavor.

I’m a climber, I tell myself. I’m no good at these outdoor sports that require fast reactions: tree skiing, mountain biking, kayaking. I’m in my early 30s, too, which is old enough to know I don’t have to do shit I don’t want to do, like eat cauliflower, get regular haircuts, wait 30 minutes after eating to get back into the swimming pool, or ride knobby-tired bicycles on steep mountain trails. That’s the great thing about being an adult.

Which is also the bad thing about being an adult: thinking you know everything. You know what you can do, and therefore you know what you can’t do, too. I’m a bad cook. I can’t fix a car. It’s too late to go back to college. I don’t dance. I’m not a mountain biker.

The last word you’d ever use to describe my friend Elizabeth is “arrogant.” Three years ago, I would have introduced her as a boulderer, and a good one. Every year since I met her, she’s tried something new: Two years ago, she learned to snowboard. Last winter, she learned to tele ski. This year, she says she’s going to learn to roll a kayak. I admire this.

I remember learning to snowboard when I was 26, falling on my ass, and my face, repeatedly, cartoon-worthy crashes in the middle of blue runs while 9-year-old kids flew by me carving the hell out of everything as I wondered if I’d just given myself a concussion. I was humbled, to say the least. That year, I was able to tell myself, as Elizabeth does every year when she takes up something new:

I am going to try this, I am going to suck at it for an indefinite amount of time, and other people are going to see me fail, repeatedly.

My friend Jeff Weidman started learning to play the guitar at age 46, and everyone said he was starting too late in life. He stuck with the lessons and kept practicing, as his career brought big changes almost every other year. Nobody said it was too late in life when he played Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison” at his first-ever open mic six years later.

The earlier you can admit you don’t know everything, the more time you have to learn new things and make a richer life. The later you admit you don’t know everything, the less time you have. And if you don’t admit it at all? There’s a song lyric that says, “The older I get, the less I know, and the more I dream.”

Is anybody inspired by the guy who knows everything? I’d rather talk to the fat guy at the gym who has finally decided to do something instead of slowly dying in front of his TV, the divorcee going on her first first date in 25 years, the shy single guy at the cooking class, all the folks bumbling through our first time in a foreign country and stumbling through a new language, and non-teenagers crashing our new bikes, skis, snowboards, and sheepishly standing up again and believing you can teach an old dog new tricks.

I’m 4-for-4 so far on rides on my new bike without crashing. A couple weeks ago, I swear I caught two inches of air off a small bump in a trail near Fort Collins. If you were standing there and acted quickly, you might have been able to pass a sheet of paper between my tires and the ground. One friend of mine says we peak as bicycle riders at age 13, after which you start to get afraid to jump your bike off things. Another friend says 30 is the new 13.


32 replies on “The Importance Of Being A Lifelong Beginner

  • Aaron F

    You’re never too old to learn……. In fact, screw that last statement; you’re never to old to have a great fucking time! And isn’t that what lifes about? The never ending search for a thrill, a pleasure, a good time, or a new experience.

    I’m glad as hell you bought your new bike B and can’t wait to ride with ya again.

    Keep the rubber side down!

  • John

    I had to ask two young lady hikers to please continue on up the trail (they were following my skin tracks to the summit of William’s Peak) so that I could continue falling down the trail… without any witnesses. Every few years I start something new. And every few years I get a little bit younger.
    Great read again Brendan. And ask Elizabeth to do her “Epileptic Fit” for you. She nailed it the first time she tried it.

  • Denise

    thanks for the reminder and the invitation. tons of caffeine-inspired gratitude for this post. this internet thing is great. keep on it!

  • Troy

    Welcome to the dirt-side!
    That was an awesome read. At 44 I’ve been trying to learn to jump and drop because it looks so much fun and I’d be able to ride a lot of other trails. I’m slowly getting there.

    Thanks for the inspiration to keep trying!

  • Josh R

    Yeah buddy, nice job on the new bike! Don’t be too afraid of crashing though. Throw on some knee pads and get ready to put it in the dirt. You gotta find the limits to know how close you can get to them.

  • Pete

    Thanks so much for the reminder and inspiration! I’m going to “re-learn” snowboarding this winter. It’s been 3 years so I want to approach it as a newbie with a more go-for it attitude. A suggestion for the mtn. bike – stay off the clipless pedals till you get REALLY comfortable…Oh, and practice getting off you bike on the “wrong” side.

  • crashDarren

    Keep it up, I started my short freeride/downhill racing career in my early 30’s and it when I have done some of my biggest jumps and hucks. My race class was the largest group.

  • Jill

    I needed that Brendan! The awesome thing about mountain biking, I think, is that it’s the kind of activity that is pretty fun no matter what stage you are at (I believe surfing also falls into this category..climbing too). When you conquer those first scary loose downhills or the tough steep climbs it always feels awesome…it’s just that those hills gradually get steeper/harder/looser but only as you get better and more ready to tackle them!
    Also – I got to ride an epic 8 hour long ride in Nelson B.C. this summer and the most ripping riders in our group that day were all over 50 (and the trip was one person’s 50th birthday present).

  • Kyle

    I once was a semi-rad BMX rider until I was about 21. I’m now 24 and last year I bought a mountain bike and I am still a newbie novice bumbly dork compared to the days of overhead air on quarter pipes and big floating 360’s. Now all I do is grab way too much brake on the down hills and walk my bike on the up hills. It’s wonderfully humbling.

  • Ashely

    An especially timely post for me, as I fully expect to be the slow, clumsy rider in the pow this season. My latest newb endeavor? Split boarding with a crew that pretty much kills it every time they’re out. I’ve been such an intermittent [resort] rider that I’m not even sure I know what “pow” and this thing called “gnar” is. I’m a climber goddammit! Thanks for the post, Brendan!

  • Amy C

    Great article Brendan.

    I adore being a beginner (even though it’s perpetually humbling), and firmly believe it’s never too late for anything. A few years ago I read about a woman who was setting new records in her age group for running. She had a 30+ year career behind her. The kicker? She was 95. She didn’t *start* running until she was 63.

    I am constantly inspired by those who get out from behind their egos and do the things that drive them. New careers at 47, new sports at 63. Being a beginner teaches us so much more than sitting on our laurels believing we already know everything. 🙂

  • David H

    It was one of my most enlightening experiences… realizing that being the “expert” meant I wasn’t open to learn and god knows I don’t know everything so I’d better get off the expert box and get started living.

    Another good one, Brendan. Now go take a class! Yes, there are classes on mountain biking that adults can take.
    I’ve taken classes (sessions?) from both.
    Depending on your goals and devotion, you might choose one over the other. BetterRide costs more, but I got a LOT more out of it. Lee is local (Longmont) and was really fun and knowledgeable.

    I am now a much more confident and safer rider.

    Oh, and welcome to the dirt-side.
    Come out with us next summer. I promise not to take you anywhere where you’ll break goal #1.

  • Wade

    I recently saw something that said “you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”. No matter what age, you might as well try something new, might not get another chance.

  • Chloe

    Thanks for the reminder to suck it up. Because if you’ve stopped learning, you’re basically already dead. So while you’re still walking and breathing, you might as well DO SOMETHING.

    Great post!

  • Blake

    Longtime reader, first time commenter….and for the record I’ve always loved your blog for how close to home your writings land. I bought my first mountain bike this year and I too rode a lot of miles to justify my purchase. I even went to a few trails all the hip sandbaggers told me to try and came back to the truck after swearing at sagebrush and smallish rocks for a few hours feeling pretty alive. Being completely shitty at something may be the best feeling ever, especially after the ruts we get into in life doing our sports of choice and that old learning curve plateaus. After a long summer of fun, I ran aground with your (and my) goal #1. Busted the radius taking the dog for a nighttime ride on a flat, city “trail”. The good news is that at 5 weeks out, I’m on the mend and will be on snow after Christmas. That said, I’d been lucky enough to never break a bone in all the years of doing stupid shit (and barely coming in at the lower end of semi-rad at many things), but now as I hit 30, I’ve got more perspective and am as psyched as ever to be shittastic at things and have a blast. Have fun and I look forward to more accounts of adventures.

  • Jeremy

    Thanks for this – it touches on a lot of things that I’ve been turning over in my mind lately. There’s always been this anxiety about doing something new, and it makes no sense. Why should anyone be nervous about going out and having fun? Am I afraid of the risk, or am I taking myself too seriously and afraid to look stupid? After a lot of practice sucking at things, maybe I still feel stupid sometimes, but fear and pride have started taking a back seat to beginner’s joy. I hope that momentum keeps building with the years.

  • shaggy Dan

    Killer relevent post – I’m a newborn fan of being a beginner!
    My revelation; 20+ years focused on certain rad sports (purposefully avoiding the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ route) is totally. Fucking. Boring.
    Earlier this year, approaching 40, I took up climbing for the first time, and having dealt with several cycles of jadedness with my foundation sports, it sure is bitchin to have a new canvas.
    My tip for new beginnings – not giving a fuck about being a kook, and even relishing it. Lately I find myself making up terminology – calling biners ‘clippy things’ just to hear reactions…
    Life is a bit more somewhat semi-rad being a beginner. Next up – ice.

  • whispering

    30 is the new 13! Awesome … that must be why I laugh at fart jokes and am generally having a really fun, and awkward time these days.

  • Chris k

    Oh man, wait until you hit 50! That’s when I decided to learn how to backcountry ski. Which meant, like, learning to ski…

    I have this nagging feeling that surfing is next!

    Life long learning is where it’s at, no doing.

  • Daniel

    ‘If you are not willing to look stupid, nothing great is ever going to happen to you.’

    Welcome to MTB buddy, ride it for what you want, dont try to keep up with everyone else and enjoy it!

  • Eric

    Thanks for this post. We were just talking about the importance of remembering what it is like to be a beginner. I lead trips for novice and beginners and it is so important to never lose that perspective.

    Plus crashing is part of everything and sometimes makes great stories.

  • Diana

    Today is my 33rd birthday. As a gift to myself I’m going to find something new or scary to try this week. Maybe perform at an open mic. Thanks for this post.

  • Adrianne

    Great post! I always encourage people to try entirely new domains of knowledge, too. For me, a lifelong academic, trying rock climbing and hiking has been life-changing. A real challenge because much of it is physical instead of intellectual, but I’m learning so much about myself as a person and how to learn something I don’t do very well. I can learn any academic subject, but to try a new domain of knowledge and experience entirely was what was important for me.

  • Colin Ridgley

    In my experience you crash a little less as you get better at Mt. biking but mostly you just get better at crashing. (e.g. landing on your feet). Don’t be afraid to fall it’s part of the learning process!

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