Why do people build custom motorcycles?
There’s at least one obvious answer: they do it so they can have a custom motorcycle.
But if all you wanted was to own a custom motorcycle, there are easier ways to get one. Maybe even less expensive ways, depending on how well-stocked your garage is 😉
Don’t get me wrong: the pride of owning a custom motorcycle is definitely a strong motivator. But now that I’m a year into my XL project, I know that by the time it’s done, I’ll have gained much more than a rebuilt enduro.
And though the title of this article is tongue-in-cheek (there aren’t any studies on the benefits of building a motorcycle — yet!), I’ve found that what science says about finding success, enjoyment, and meaning in life aligns surprisingly well with what I’ve felt when I’m up to my elbows in grease.
There’s a lot of research out there, so I can’t cover it all in one post. So let’s start small, with four ways the worlds of psychology and vintage motorcycles coincide.
1) Working on a motorcycle gets you into “flow.”
If you’re a member of western society, everyone is battling for your attention. Your phone buzzes for everything from incoming calls to nearby Pokemon. Pop-up ads dominate our screens, and click-bait headlines will say anything to win a tap.
But when you’re working on a motorcycle project, it all fades away. Out there in the garage, it’s just you, the bike, and the work ahead.
In the 1990s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheek-sent-me-high”) published a book on this state of mind, calling it “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as,
The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
According to Csikszentmihalyi, achieving a flow state has many benefits. First, it is one of the most enjoyable states of being. Csikszentmihalyi found that people enjoyed “activities that require the investment of psychic energy” more than typical leisure activities like watching TV.
Flow also helps us improve our skills, learn to direct our attention, and give us a sense of control over our lives. As Csikszentmihalyi summarizes:
Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.”
In modern life, though, flow is important for another reason: it helps us regain our focus.
My friend Matt of Krank Engineering shared this with me the other day, and it captures the sentiment well:
I was reading the other day that the human attention span has allegedly degenerated to 8 seconds. I think that’s why I love working on bikes. You have to focus. Think. Concentrate. Co-ordinate hand and eye. For hours on end.
There’s no instant gratification. In fact, it’s the opposite. There’s often ‘prolonged’ gratification. This fact alone will prevent people from finishing their custom bike project, but only if you let it.”
Working on a motorcycle demands focus. You can’t jump from one thing to the next, as digital tools encourage and even train us to do.
It might be hard at first, but as meditation practitioners say, your mind is like a muscle. With practice, you’ll be flowing with your project in no time.
2) You learn the benefits of intrinsic motivation.
No matter how it looks on Instagram, my XL project hasn’t been easy. Sometimes it’s hard for the dumbest reasons. Last weekend, I wrestled for an hour with a bit that got stuck in my impact driver.
But I keep going. Why?
Because I want to. Because this project is important to me. Because I care about doing a good job.
Notice, these reasons are all about me. But don’t be too quick to accuse me of being an entitled millennial. According to the science of intrinsic motivation, this is actually a good thing.
In studies going back to the 1970s, researchers have found that when people are intrinsically motivated, they tend to perform better than when they’re motivated by external motivations, like punishments or rewards.
Author and education scholar Alfie Kohn explains:
Research and logic suggest that punishment and rewards are not really opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Both strategies amount to ways of trying to manipulate someone’s behavior – in one case, prompting the question, ‘What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it?’, and in the other instance, leading a child to ask, ‘What do they want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?’ Neither strategy helps children to grapple with the question, ‘What kind of person do I want to be?'”
Many of us grew up in an education system that relied on a network of external motivations. We studied to get good grades, got good grades to get into a good college, did well in college to get a good job… and so on.
Part of the problem is, as Kohn points out, it was simply assumed that we wanted those rewards. Nobody asked us, or even asked us to think about, what we genuinely wanted from life.
Committing yourself to a challenging, self-motivated project not only gives you the chance to pursue a passion, but also the opportunity to explore your limits and values.
In other words, rebuilding a motorcycle gives you the chance to define and create the person you want to be.
3) You learn to see the world from another point of view.
I have this vision of myself, hopefully only a few months from now, starting up my XL for the first time.
I kick the starter over once, twice, again … and nothing happens.
In that moment, I’ll have a decision to make. Will I give in to my frustration? Will I kick and kick and kick until my leg goes numb?
Hopefully not. Hopefully, I will remember that to get what I want (a running motorcycle), first I have to make sure the motorcycle has what it needs.
Working on a motorcycle, you have an end goal: get the bike rebuilt and running again. But to achieve that goal, you have to learn to see the world from a different point of view: your motorcycle’s.
Matthew Crawford makes this point well in one of my favorite quotes from Shop Class as Soulcraft:
A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask yourself what it needs.”
This same perspective-shifting skill can help us with one of life’s great challenges: coping with loss.
As a psychology professor and husband to a novelist, James Pennebaker understands the importance of “life stories.” He wanted to know, what happens to our life stories when we experience loss?
“Do I change my story about my life, or do I continue persevering with the old story even though the facts don’t fit?” he said in an interview on the Invisibilia podcast.
By analyzing stories of grief with a linguistic algorithm, he found that, indeed, people who overcame a loss did change their story. And they were able to do so because they had shifted their perspective. Invisibilia reports,
There had to be some moment, somehow, where you saw what happened to you as if you were the author writing about it, not the character living it.”
Working on our motorcycles, we learn how to deal with a challenge by reframing the problem. This skill is useful not only in motorcycle maintenance, but in life as well.
4) Humans have a basic need to influence their environments.
In the early 1900s, most psychologists explained human behavior as a response to either environmental stimuli or biological needs.
But, to psychologist Robert White, something was missing. In 1959, he published a paper on “effectance,” stating that all humans have a basic need to “interact effectively with the environment.”
Effectance motivation goes beyond filling basic biological needs, like hunger or thirst, or to reduce discomfort. Effectance motivation drives us to improve ourselves in meaningful ways. And, I’d argue, effectance motivation is one of the reasons we build motorcycles.
But there’s another piece of this that is particularly poignant for modern life. Working on motorcycles gives us an opportunity we rarely get in modern life: the opportunity to make something real.
As our good friend Csikszentmihalyi writes,
Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control.”
Sure, it’s only a motorcycle. But it’s something real and tangible. And it’s something that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t rolled up our sleeves and put in the work.
Which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for a tweet.
There are many reasons people build custom motorcycles. We work on motorcycles to improve ourselves, focus ourselves, discover ourselves, fulfill ourselves, and assert ourselves.
Rebuilding a motorcycle won’t automatically make you a better, happier, more fulfilled person. Nothing in this world can do that.
But if you’re paying attention, it gives you plenty of chances.
Ready to start your own custom motorcycle project?
If you want to build your own custom motorcycle, but have no idea where to begin, I wholeheartedly recommend the resources created by Matt McCleod at Krank Engineering. His empathy and enthusiasm provide the direction, support and guidance a newbie mechanic needs.
Plus, when you join his community through the link below, part of your membership will help support the RIDEWELL blog. Thank you!
Being an affiliate for Matt’s community helps me continue to create quality content for readers like you. If you’re interested, you can read more about my affiliate policies here.