On mastery, cycling and mental health

Written on 2018-11-25

"When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking"

-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I started cycling again after years of zero exercise. I had average stamina back in school days. As both time and distance of daily commute kept on increasing, I stopped using my bicycle and at some point I sold it for 50 bucks. Desk jobs will make you fat and unhealthy, that can be said with 100% certainty. To fix this, I decided to pick up cycling… with one end goal: ability to ride 100 km in a day, someday.

On very first day I did 14km with ~100m elevation. Finishing it felt amazing. Something about being disconnected from cellphone network and connected to nature gets to your brain. You get mental strength to push that pedal one more time and slowly reach the destination. But this feeling was ephemeral. Soon your muscles start aching, your body has never had this kind of stress before and it doesn’t like it. It fights back.

I couldn’t quite train on weekdays, but today I did 28km. There was no ecstatic feeling this time. The process of hitting next such moment is dull and repetitive. Sure, you can spice up the route and enjoy surroundings. But you will not quite get the satisfaction of that first break.

I remembered some concept I read in George Leonard’s book Mastery. I don’t have the book now, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy here. Mastering anything takes time, you’ll get brief spurts of success and after that you’ll have to withstand long long plateau of dull practice before you get next brief spurt. We tend to ignore just how much time people spend on this plateau, all you see on social media and news are the moments of triumph, the brief moments of success. It’s almost as if no one wants to see/read/listen to mind-numbing practice that goes behind those brief spurts of success.

Research shows that your mental health is quite dependent on your physical health too. My mental health was at its lowest during college, where I didn’t get much physical exercise and had a nonexistent circadian rhythm. Then I got a job, where my mental health did improve, but mostly because of stability, routine and a low-stress life. That didn’t last for long, you have to actively try to fight this. It seems there is no simple plateau here, here it’s a downhill slope.

If you’re feeling unusually low, I’d suggest picking up an hobby, preferable something that challenges you, physically.

It will get so much worse, before it gets any better. Stick around and enjoy the plateau. :)