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Knowing doesn’t convert to doing - 7/7/2015

There’s a film on YouTube about an engineer who has been riding bicycles since he was 6 years old. However, 25 years later, when challenged to ride a “backwards” bike, he totally failed because this bicycle was different. The handle bars had been modified such that, when you turned them to the right, the wheel turned to the left. Conversely, when you turned them to the left, the wheel turned to the right: 180 degrees opposite the way a regular bike operates.

It’s well worth your viewing it:

The curious fact is that when you initially think about it, it seems simple. Your thoughts are, “I can do that. If I want to turn to the right, all I have to do is turn and the bike will go where I want it to.” Although it sounds extremely easy, it isn’t. The lesson is that knowledge doesn’t necessarily convert to a change in behavior.

The last statement is extremely significant to me, because I’m in the business of talking to people and trying to help them to understand that they can alter their behavior. But, when you give it thought, there are many examples that don’t support this notion. For example, almost every individual with a weight problem is aware that increased exercise and decreased intake of food equal weight loss. No matter what fancy program you may devise to help lose weight, it always boils down to that equation: The less you eat and the more you exercise, the more weight you lose but, most fat people don’t eat less or exercise more, despite their genuine desires to be thin.

It’s the same for smokers and drinkers. They understand that smoking causes cancer and that drinking is injurious to their physical and emotional health, as well as their relationships and careers, but they continue to smoke and drink, despite that awareness. So, just knowing doesn’t necessarily change the way you behave.

Now, let’s return to my original example. The engineer (Destin) fully understood that he had to turn the handlebars in the opposite direction from the way he wanted to go, but when he got on, what I’m calling the backward bicycle, his old habits were so ingrained that though he turned the wheel in the right direction his body and balance were still operating according to an old bias, rather than his knowledge. Consequently, he repeatedly fell off the bike. Nevertheless, he practiced every day, despite injuring himself on several occasions, and eight months later, he became proficient in riding his backwards steering bicycle.

It’s noteworthy that Destin also is a motivational speaker, who is asked to present all over the world. During his presentations, he offers $200 to anyone who can ride the backwards bike across a stage, a length of approximately 15 feet. No one has yet to collect the $200. Even more interesting is that sometime later, Destin found himself in Amsterdam, where he attempted to ride a normal bike. To his surprise, he discovered that all the difficulty he originally had with the modified bicycle had transferred over to his regular bike.

The essence of this story is that it can be very difficult, if not on occasion impossible, to free your brain from a cognitive bias that you learned early in life. This caused me to think about the many individuals I’ve seen who have come to therapy for months or even years, but never changed their behavior. Some of them easily could have exchanged chairs with me and provided accurate insightful observations regarding themselves or someone else’s emotional dynamics. But, despite their knowledge, they, for the most part, were unable to alter their own cognitive bias, i.e. the bike they rode on since childhood. It may explain why some therapist can be very effective treating others, but still retain their own pathological behaviors.

In my words, their inner child still embraced the cognitive bias he/she learned during the first six years of life. It certainly explains why, on many occasions, people encounter challenges they truly want to conquer, but a silent voice inside shouts, “You’ll never be able to do this,” and, if you haven’t said it, you’ve probably heard someone else say, “I can’t do math.” Later, no matter how much studying you or they do, math becomes a bike you can’t ride.

It isn’t that you don’t have the capability, or even the motivation; it’s just that you feel totally comfortable, familiar or safe riding your old bike and you’re too fearful to risk injury, to fail, or appear dumb while trying to ride a new one, so you hold on to and convince yourself of your own inability. It also explains why many individuals, who previously were adamantly reluctant to talk before an audience, speak up to authority figures, or openly express feelings to a spouse, often verbalize after they’ve finally done it, “If I’d known it was so easy, I’d have tried it years ago.”

To risk changing old behaviors, attitudes, and/or opinions, you need to recognize and accept that, 1) figuratively speaking, the bike you’re riding isn’t getting you to where you want to go; 2) you are far more capable of facing challenges, overcoming obstacles and succeeding beyond your greatest expectations, than you currently may believe; 3) you have to commit to trying new things and behaving in a manner that’s abnormal to you; 4) How do you reach that point? You take baby steps. You learn that you grow because of your failures and, in the process of risking failure, you come to master your childhood fears.

Essentially, you need to learn to ride a “new bike,” i.e., to do things you always dreamed of doing, but never before dared to do. As a result, you will discover your capabilities and potentials, as opposed to drowning in your heretofore perceived shortcomings. It requires that you fully realize your regular bike hasn’t taken you to where you always wanted to go, but that you so want to get there, that you’re willing to risk falling off a new bike, making a fool of yourself and being embarrassed by your ineptness – until you learn to steer in a new direction, in order to get to where you want to be.

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