Business and Life Lessons from Motorcycle Racing: Review of "A Twist of the Wrist" by Keith Code
I read "A Twist of the Wrist" by Keith Code, expecting it to be about motorcycling and motorcycle racing. Instead, it turned out to be a book of life philosophy and advice to apply in business and life.
Motorcycling is a technical set of skills in deploying power as quickly and efficiently as possible. But at its base, like any pursuit — mental, athletic, or artistic — is the human condition. The way we push through limits, learn from mistakes, and maintain the correct attitude is what separates champions from other riders.
Keith Code captures all of this in "A Twist of the Wrist". Even though he presents it as a book about motorcycling, he writes like a philosopher. This is obvious from the first lesson: don't badmouth yourself. Instead, focus on what you can improve.
Here's my summary and notes from the book.
Summary of lessons from "A Twist of the Wrist"
- Don't badmouth yourself. Reflect on what you can improve, not what you did wrong.
- Ride out mistakes, to learn the full lesson.
- Look for the root of mistakes in the inputs, not the outcome.
- Follow your own path.
- The faster you're going, the more aggressively you have to turn.
- The best racers are those fastest at learning to read and interpret critical information.
- Don't watch others; watch the track.
- First do it right, then add speed.
- You gain more in the race by going faster in long sweeps, not tight turns.
- The best riding advice comes from your best friend: You
- Be willing to fall down... or don't ride
Don't badmouth yourself. Reflect on what you can improve, not what you did wrong.
Keith talks about how we talk ourselves down in life. Riders have a bad habit of focusing on what they don't do well, or how they screwed something up. This is just like many of us in life — over-weighting mistakes we made.
Instead, he advises, we should look at mistakes as opportunities to do things better. We shouldbe focusing onwhat we can measure and improve.
Many riders have a bad habit of talking in negatives about their riding. "I didn't go in hard enough," "I should have gotten a better drive off the corner," "I don't use the brakes that well," "I need to get a better line through this turn." Didn't. Can't. Shouldn't have. Don't. Too much. Not enough. Most riders use these negative words much too often. How can information about what he didn't do right, or things that were almost — or not quite — done, ever improve his riding? If a person is riding at all he is already doing more right than wrong. The job is to add to those correct actions and drop the incorrect.
Ride out mistakes, to learn the full lesson.
In racing, it's tempting to try to correct a mistake right away. But this prevents us from learning the the true consequences of our actions. Because there's margin for error on the track, he says it's instructive to "ride out" a mistake and see where it goes, so you can keep notes on the situation later, and learn a more comprehensive lesson.
You can easily cheat yourself out of the knowledge to be gained from mistakes. Let's say you got into a turn a little too hard and went wide of your line. Normally, you would try to get back to that good line — to what worked. That's fine but there's a twist. If you "ride out your mistake" you will learn how that different line works. Trying desperately to get back to the ideal once you've made a mistake won't tell you anything except that you've made a mistake. Riding out that mistake will give you valuable information about how to handle it should it ever happen again.
Similarly in life, this is analogous to running a full experiment through to its conclusion. If you start a project or a new hobby, don't just can it at the first sign of difficulty. You miss out on learning something you could apply to the next initiative.
Look for the root of mistakes in the inputs, not the outcome.
Riders tend to focus on what went wrong, like "I didn't turn soon enough". But that's just the last thing you did. Look for the inputs to the situation: how fast you were going, where you started braking, and so on.
The root of the mistake is the control change or the decisions you made and acted upon just before the problem occurred. A good example of this is going into a turn too wide. The rider got there because it was where he had pointed the bike the last time he had made a steering change. Most riders would say, "I didn't turn soon enough." That isn't true. Actually, he kept it pointing straight too long. It will take a lot longer for the rider to realize what happened if he begins looking for the problem at the point when he noticed it, than if he goes back to the earlier point where he was steering before he began the turn. He has to realize that he was operating from an earlier decision to go straight, not the later one to turn.
Follow your own path.
Find your own path around the track, not somebody else's. Everyone rides differently.
I asked a better rider to show me his "lines" around the course. We went around the track at a good practice pace as I carefully observed what he was doing in hopes of finding out some deep, dark riding secrets. I did find out. I found out that a rider's line is his plan for going through a turn. His plan is based upon what he does well and what he doesn't do well. I observed, then and now, that a rider's plan will be based upon his strengths and weaknesses. His line is the result of how his strengths and weaknesses fit together.
You can learn a lot from watching others. But ultimately, you need to learn about yourself.
The faster you're going, the more aggressively you have to turn.
When you're going faster, you have to turn differently: you enter differently, you brake differently and at different times, and you turn more aggressively.
If you make your major steering change at the same point going into a turn — and increase your speed past that point — you will run wide of the point you passed on the last lap because of the increase in centrifugal force. If the bike runs a bit too wide at the exit, you may believe you went too fast. Actually, the remedy is to go later before making the steering change. The faster you wish to go through a turn, the later you have to enter it to increase your speed at the exit. What will change if you do this? If you go in later and faster, the steering change will need to be more abrupt and the bike will not want to turn as easily as before. The trick to going in later is to go a bit slower right at the point where you make your steering change.
The best racers are those fastest at learning to read and interpret critical information.
Keith often talks about "reference points" on a track. You learn as many as possible. You read them to know when to brake, when to accelerate, when to start leaning etc. The best racers are those who learn the reference points and how to interpret them quickly.
A reference point is not merely something you can see easily on or near the track, the reference point must mean something to you when you see it. Every time you pass or approach it, this point must communicate a message to you, like, "This is where I begin looking for my turn marker" or "If I'm to the right of this too much I'll hit a bump but to the left of it I'm alright" or "This is where I begin my turn." Reference points are reminders of where you are or of what action you must take. One factor that separates the top riders from the rest of the field is that they pick up RPs quickly and accurately to the point they can see the "whole scene" without having to pick out the individual RPs.
Don't watch others; watch the track.
"Guys get in trouble watching the rider in front. You're aware that they're there but you look at the track." — E.L.
First do it right, then add speed.
An old mantra of learning to do something right, and then going faster. Just like "before you run, you must learn to walk".
Keith talks about this as the "decision to go faster", and how it has to come on the back of learning and experience.
Once you've gone through the boring parts of looking and experimenting to see what works, you are armed with enough knowledge to make your decision to go faster really work. Without solving some of your barriers and rough spots on the track, you just make mistakes at a higher speed. It has been said many times by many good riders: First do it right, then add the speed.
You gain more in the race by going faster in long sweeps, not tight turns.
People focus on the times when they're going slowest — those tight, small corners. But the place where you gain the most is on the long sweeps and straights. Don't go fast around a slow corner only to not go as fast on the long sweep — it's a net loss.
You gain more time in the fast turns than you do in slow ones. You will find, as every rider has, that a little faster in the fast turns makes much more difference than a little faster in the slow ones. You cover more distance in the fast turns, which brings up your overall average faster. Remember, it takes only about one mph higher
The best riding advice comes from your best friend: You
Everyone has advice on the way you ride, but you have to know how to interpret it for yourself.
One word of advice about people giving you advice about your riding — you are your best advisor. You're the one sitting in the saddle and riding. No one has better information about what is going on in your head than you. Deal with your own decisions, your barriers, your products and reference points, your points of timing and attention — not someone else's.
The way your riding looks to someone beside the track has nothing to do with how you are thinking about it. In the end you have to sort it out for yourself. Another rider's line, even if he goes faster than you, might not be the correct one for you. Information can be valuable but you have to watch where it's coming from and who's giving it. Other riders are often operating from their own false information. Pick it up and you will try to make it work, too. It can waste your time and energy.
Everyone has advice for everything in your life: relationships, health, careers, and pretty much everything else. It's all worth listening to, but you need to apply a filter to help you think: how is this relevant to me?
Be willing to fall down... or don't ride
Finally, Code says the best riders are those who mentally accept they may fall. You don't have to want it, but you have to accept the whole package.
As a racer, you should be willing to fall off. You don't have to want to but being willing to is very different and it has to do with your attitude about falling.
If you ride a motorcycle and especially if you race one, falling is an activity you're likely to become involved with. It goes with the territory of riding. If you resist falling, you are more likely to fall. This is the key.The more you resist it or fixate on the idea of not falling, the more it will take your attention away from your riding. You can spend your entire attention resisting falling. Then, because you have no attention left to operate the machine, fall from a mistake.
Here again is the magic of the decision. You simply decide that you might fall off and accept that it can happen, at any time, anywhere. You have to look at it and say, "Okay, I can fall off one of these things. I might break a bone or have a hell of a slide or I just might die doing it." All of these things can and do happen to motorcycle riders. So, get it out of the way by taking a look at it and then making your decision from there. I wouldn't advise racing to anyone who wasn't willing to fall down.
I think this is the ultimate lesson for anyone starting any difficult endeavour. Don't even just be willing to fall: assume it will happen, and maybe for circumstances outside your control. Take ownership of it. If you don't want to fail... don't start.