A year ago, I looked at my life and thought, something is missing.
Overall, I was happy. I had a steady, flexible job with decent pay, a picturesque little home, a goofy cat and a much-loved partner.
But I was tired. Tired of circular projects that lasted for months, tired of watching Netflix every night, tired of cramming tiny hobbies into the corners of my days. Tired of sitting all the time, tired of screens.
I wanted to do something different, force a radical change. I wanted to challenge myself with a goal that would mean something to me when I reached it.
So I bought a running 1982 Honda XL250R off Craigslist, and told myself I was going to rebuild it.
A Year of Labor, Physical and Mental
In the months that followed I stripped the bike down to its frame, labeling and storing parts as best I knew how. I sent everything off for paint, one carload at a time. I researched — a lot — and ordered nine batches of parts from two different suppliers, not including miscellaneous eBay orders.
I had the cylinder re-honed, the valves guides re-faced, and the camshaft bearing re-surfaced. I scrubbed the engine and wore through several pairs of gloves, removing baked-on gaskets and dirt. I constructed a paint booth and repainted each engine component in my garage.
Most recently, I re-assembled the newly powdercoated forks and re-laced the wheels with fresh spokes.
Perhaps more important than the physical accomplishments, though, were the mental ones. In the days after the teardown, pondering over my boxes of parts, I was scared. I didn’t know what to do next, how to move forward, whether I would see this bike reassembled ever again.
All I could do was grasp at whatever task presented itself. I knew that if I could keep moving forward, however small the step, I would eventually find my path.
Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.”
Now, thanks to that early consistency and determination, I did indeed start to find my way. The path isn’t totally clear, but I no longer worry about finishing this bike. In my mind, the bike is already built. Whether it’s done a year from now or two doesn’t matter, I know it’s there waiting for me.
Reclaiming my Focus, One Wrench at a Time
My workbench has become a sanctuary: a tactile island in an abstract screen-world. When I’m in the garage, whether to organize, measure, reassemble or even just clean, I find myself anchored, calm.
In the “real world,” my laptop is the tool and the medium. For better or worse, everything I need to do my job is buried behind that screen.
But in the garage, my digital “devices” and their psychological triggers lose their power. I use my phone and laptop for advice and information. After getting the information I need, I have no trouble putting them down. In service of a higher goal, my “devices” are revealed for what they are: tools.
Slowly, this goal-oriented focus has helped me cope with digital distractions in the “real world.” I’m learning to ask myself, “Is what I’m doing on my phone right now helping me achieve my goal?”
I’m not the only one having these realizations. Research, books, and news about how modern software erodes our focus is reaching a fever pitch. Product developers are stepping forward to say, yes, our app was designed to keep you coming back, to nudge you to keep scrolling.
It makes business sense, after all. Most of these apps and websites are funded by advertiser revenue, which means their survival as a company is inextricably linked to how many eyeballs they can ensnare. But, as we’ve learned many times already, business sense is not necessarily human sense.
Very few big businesses have a vested interest in keeping me in my garage, working on motorcycles. It barely even makes “business sense” for me. But there’s an intangible benefit to this time I spend wrenching.
Here, I’m more than just a set of eyeballs with thumbs. Working on this motorcycle involves all my senses, my whole body. And, surprisingly, it requires many intellectual skills I fostered through childhood: mathematics, critical thinking, organizational skills, research acumen.
Working on this motorcycle has been a challenge unlike any other. It’s demanding and sometimes frustrating, but it’s given me so much in return. It’s helping me rebuild my focus, and, more than that, it’s growing my confidence.
A New Type of Confidence
I am no stranger to the pride of a job well done. I’ve delivered presentations that gave me a rush of adrenaline, boiled weeks of research into cohesive brand strategies, and lead important pitch meetings to upper-level management with grace.
But while I enjoyed those projects at the time, they always left me feeling disjointed. I didn’t recognize myself in them: who was that woman speaking confidently to that CEO? What did she want in life, why was she doing this?
The confidence I gained through those projects boosted my self-esteem, certainly. But those accomplishments didn’t feel real to me. Not like this. Working on this motorcycle, I’ve learned that success is one thing, but success doing something you love is so much better.
Before this project, I had a hard time following my own dreams. Especially ones that cut into my real-world obligations. It was much easier for me to do the logical thing, to follow the carrot at the end of the stick: pass the class to get your diploma, get your diploma to get a job, get a job to have security and a place to live.
But eventually, the stick-and-carrot chain of young adulthood runs out. After you get the diploma, get the job, it’s up to you to figure out what’s next.
Slowly, this project is teaching me that my own goals, dreams, and desires are more important than the socially prescribed milestones of adulthood. And if following my own dreams means I have to opt out of some aspects of “typical” life, so be it.
I only have one life to live, so I might as well live it being the person I want to be.
Rebuilding the Honda, Rebuilding Myself
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not a book about motorcycle maintenance, but it does say something true about the process:
The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”
When I started this project, I was a self in fragments. I treated all my dreams like fantasies, even the small ones like daily walks or weekend trips to the coast. I prioritized my “responsibilities” and “obligations” over what I needed to find balance, and I felt defeated when my tired, worn-out brain turned again and again to glowing screens for solace.
This past year, a focused determination to rebuild this motorcycle has helped me piece together my fragmented self. I walk daily now, and I bought a motorcycle I can rely on to shuttle me safely to the coast whenever I want.
As I learn about my old Honda and how to pay attention to what it needs, I’m learning my mind better and building the confidence to speak up for what it needs.
Like my XL, I still have a ways to go. But I’m gaining ground every day.
Ready to start your own custom motorcycle project?
If you want to build your own custom motorcycle, but you have no idea where to begin, I wholeheartedly recommend the resources created by Matt McCleod at Krank Engineering. His empathy and enthusiasm will provide the direction, support and guidance a newbie mechanic needs.
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