Invisible Gorillas in Black Leather

This blog entry was originally published in November, 2014

In June of 2001, I read an article in the New Yorker written by a then-marginally known Malcolm Gladwell. Since thatdeluxe-gorilla-costume time, Gladwell has gone on to be the toast of publishing – writing such bestsellers as The Tipping Point and Blink, among others, as well as ongoing contributions to the New Yorker and Slate magazines.

The riveting article, entitled Wrong Turn, ostensibly addressed the history of American driver behavior, from before padded dashboards and seat belts to the now-standard air bag.

But the psychologist in me immediately gravitated toward the article’s citings of Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, whose psychology work at Harvard introduced the term inattentional blindness to the mainstream. As you might guess, inattentional blindness (also known as perceptual blindness) occurs where attention to one thing causes us to miss another detail that others would believe is blindingly obvious. The Rosetta Stone illustration and self-evaluation of this concept can be found on the site of Simon & Chabris:

By now, dear reader, you have probably already anticipated what you’ll find on the video and are in on the secret. But go ahead and try it on your friends and family for some perceptual self-assessment grins.

Responsible motorcyclists have been aware of inattentional blindness since the first motorcycle hit the road. And even if we didn’t know a specific term for drivers not paying attention, we hopefully anticipate any such eventuality. My creed in my Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes is that, at best, cars are attending to other cars. If you don’t have at least four tires, you’re at risk of falling into the inattentional blindness abyss. And it’s not just motorcycles, but bicycles, pedestrians, skateboarders, etc.

While Wrong Turn never mentions the word motorcycle, it should be easy to see the sobering applications. The Smart Phone has raised the inattentional blindness bar, bringing out the worst in the auto driver’s proclivity for cockpit bells & whistles. And while Gladwell makes mention of cell phones in 2001’s Wrong Turn, they were not nearly the everyday accoutrement that they are in 2014. Now, add to this the relatively recent and deadly confounding variable of text messaging…

The motorcycle industry seems on the cusp of fighting inattentional blindness fire with fire. Witness the Project Rushmore Harley-Davidsons with their built-in Bluetooth and voice-activated phone systems. That’ll show those car drivers who can win the least-tuned-in to their vehicular surroundings award.

I’m more from the school that you get on your motorcycle to get away from communication and modern electronics. Readers who know me, if only from my blog, know what a music junkie I am. Can’t get enough of the stuff. In the last two hours while writing this I’ve gone from The Buzzcocks to Duke Ellington to Weiss’ Sonata for Lute in D Minor. Go figure. But my point is that when I’m saddled up on a motorcycle, I’m (gasp!) music free. I have helmet-friendly ear buds, but I rarely use them. Everybody has a limited span of attention, and you need all of whatcha got when you’re motorcycling. I’d rather save my headbanging for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit at a party than screaming my Kurt Cobain impression for an iPod audience made up of my helmeted self on a bike – resulting in the not-so-nice kind of headbanging due to a bounce off a texter’s car I failed to anticipate.

So please, dear reader – if you’re a motorcyclist, save the iTunes for a lonely two-lane road. And if you’re only a car driver : ) please tune in to your fellow road sharers – even if they’re not dressed as gorillas.

Link to Gladwell’s original Wrong Turn piece:

Get On, Lean In, and Look Through: Why “Lean In” Author Sheryl Sandberg Should Consider Getting a Motorcycle

This blog entry was originally published in December, 2014

I have a motorcycle pal named Sarah Lahalih. That’s her on the red & white Triumph.

I rarely see her. In fact, I’m not sure anyone ever sees her, because she’s the consummate globetrotting thrillseeker. IMotorcycle Sarah doubt that she’s ever anywhere longer than it takes to say “hi!” before she’s teleported to another continent on yet another National Geographic-like adventure. She has a cool blog that you should check out called Motorcycle Sarah:

Sarah and I met in Pennsylvania in 2003 when we were becoming Motorcycle Safety Foundation RiderCoach Trainers (yes, RiderCoach is one word). We catch up via e-mail, and at the occasional track day or a motorcycle safety summit of some kind. But she recently posted the above pic with a caption that cleverly likened her leaning into that turn as being a new way of practicing Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”.

For those of you not familiar with Ms. Sandberg, she’s the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and last year  wrote an engaging book entitled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I read it, and recommend you do the same. The chapter clarifying that the Corporate Ladder needs to be thought of as more of a jungle gym is alone worth the
purchase price. And yes, I’m living proof that men can read Lean In and not start singing soprano or scheduling a
manicure / pedicure by the book’s end. But because of Sarah and Sheryl, I had an epiphany.  And now it can be revealed:

  • Sheryl Sandberg should learn to ride a motorcycle.0318_sandberg1-800x480
  • Sheryl Sandberg should then write the sequel to Lean In, which should be entitled Get On, Lean In, and Look Through.

Ms. Sandberg should do all of the above because she’s an incipient thrillseeker. I just don’t think she knows it yet. But Lean In shows she’s learned at least a bit of risk-taking along the way. One of my favorite excerpts in Lean In is where she’s offered a pre-Facebook position in 2001 with a then-relatively unknown company by the name of Google. Sandberg walked into a meeting with Google’s CEO in all of her Harvard Business School MBA glory, armed with spreadsheets documenting the pros and cons of all of her job offers. The CEO responded by simply suggesting to her that “if you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on”. I love that.

But what is this about Sandberg learning to ride a motorcycle?

First, a quick primer on motorcycling for those of my dear blog-reading pals who might not partake. Not to oversimplify motorcycling, but Motorcycle Sarah and I would generally spend a fair amount of early motorcycle course time coaching riders to keep their eyes looking far ahead, looking where they want to go. This applies to both riding in a straight line, as well as when we later coach students to look through their turns. You’d be surprised how hard this is for some people. Unless coached otherwise, people seem to be hardwired to be looking down – about 2 feet ahead of their motorcycle’s front tire. But when they get the “look where you want to go” thing happening, it all starts to smooth out. Success! And as the students progress, we introduce and add the dynamic of the bike leaning to make a smooth turn.

I’ll bet you’d be absolutely floored to know that I believe motorcycling is a metaphor for life. There are risks in each, but there are also exhilarations! And if you look through your life path and plan your route, readying yourself for the possibilities of the occasional puddle, pothole or moose, you can better moderate the risks. Then Lean In to that curve with your eyes ahead, and just try not to scream “woo hoo!” too loudly inside your helmet.

Sandberg’s Lean In is generally about women taking risks. It questions many ingrained beliefs, such as the tendency of some women to turn down a new opportunity because there is a generations-old voice inside making them believe that they “just aren’t ready for it”. Lean In challenges women to seize new opportunities by telling themselves “I’ll learn as I work in that new role”.

So whether you’re thinking about learning to pilot a motorcycle, a novel marketing plan, or a rocket ship, tell that “I’m just not ready for it” voice to shut up. Then get on. Lean in. Look through. The new voice you’ll hear will be the one yelling “woo hoo!”.