Over a Beer: What Kind of Life Do You Want to Live?

Choosing to live in a small mountain town like Salida, CO requires a serious meta-level decision about the type of life that you want to lead. (Rider: Marcel Slootheer. Dog: Ezra. Photo: Greg Heil.)
Choosing to live in a small mountain town like Salida, CO requires a serious meta-level decision about the type of life that you want to lead.
(Rider: Marcel Slootheer. Dog: Ezra. Photo: Greg Heil.)

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

At the end of every calendar year, many people look back on the previous 12 months and reflect on their life. “What challenges did I face in the past year? What were the highlights of the past year? What did I accomplish? What do I want to accomplish in the coming year?”

If this isn’t an exercise you partake in, I highly recommend it. It’s more than merely making a New Year’s Resolution–it’s an exercise of active reflection on who you are, based on what you’ve done.

I feel like I get a jump on the process every year thanks to having a birthday in early November. Not content to wait until the beginning of January, my reflection begins now, with the upshot being that by the time January rolls around, I’ve already determined what my primary goals will be for the upcoming year.

You need more than just New Year’s Eve to plan an entire year.

More than Just Goals

In the past, my reflection has focused on the goals that I’ve either accomplished in the past year, or failed to accomplish. And when looking forward, my focus has been deciding which goals I want to set my mind to achieving–what I want to see happen in the upcoming year.

To be sure, this isn’t a bad thing. But as I’ve delved deeper and deeper, I’ve had to ask myself: “Why am I setting this goal? What is my motivation for creating this goal? What do I hope to attain by accomplishing this specific thing?”

Oftentimes I tend to look at these goals and the actions that were required to achieve them in isolation. “Did I accomplish this? Yes or no.”

But when you step back a pace and look at the combined weight of those goals and achievements, or challenges overcome, you’re looking at your actions collectively. What you have done in the past year of life.

And actions, more than anything else, define who we are and what our character is.

Actions Show Your Character

Sure, words are important, and a quick Google search about action as defining our character can unearth articles arguing the opposite way. But especially in our age of social media, talk is cheap. People can spew hopes, dreams, and goals all over Facebook, with no possible chance of achieving any of them. Maybe talk isn’t even cheap, it can be even worse than cheap, when one’s claims to action end up falling flat on their faces.

Regardless of the value of talk or the lack thereof, when I look back on the bulk of my actions over the past year, those actions tell a story. They tell the story of my life.

The things I did, the things I didn’t do. How I handled adversity, or how I ran from it. How I set goals for myself and achieved them, or how I accomplished nothing. What I put value on, and what I didn’t deem worthy of investing in.

The actions tell the story.

Asking the Wrong Question

I think that over the years I may have been asking the wrong question at the beginning of every year. I’ve asked, “What do I want to accomplish? What do I want to do?” And as noted above, those actions based on those questions in turn have defined the person that I am.

But perhaps a better question to ask is: “What kind of life do I want to live?”

If you know the kind of life that you want to live, and have determined the most important priorities of your heart with 100% certainty, the objective of living that particular life can and should significantly impact the specific goals that you set for next year. When you know how you want to live, that informs which actions you take, and which you do not take.

This discussion is quite abstract right now, so let’s make it practical.

Thought Experiment 1: Possessions VS Experience

The $10,500 Specialized S-Works FSR Di2
The $10,500 Specialized S-Works FSR Di2

One of the most basic life-long value decisions you can make is whether or not you’ll spend your life amassing valuable possessions, or spend your life in the pursuit of epic experiences. In the outdoors culture in general, the obvious answer to this dilemma always is, “experience! Experience!” But in the world of mountain biking, while the answer may seem obvious, it’s not always quite that clear-cut.

Unlike some other outdoors activities, mountain biking can be a very expensive pursuit. With top-end mountain bikes costing $10,000-$12,000, not to mention accessories, additional gear, extra bikes for other types of riding, and the like, you could conceivably spend as much money as you desire on this sport. But unless you’re independently wealthy, have already spent decades amassing a fortune for yourself, or are generally really lucky, acquiring the money to spend on the bikes and accessories will take you some serious work.

Most of us lust after the latest technology, the continued advancements, the lightest carbon bikes, and wish we could own one of them–or indeed, take the step and figure out how to make the latest and greatest bike our steed for the year–every year. But is the amount of work required to earn that $10,000 and spend it on an uber-light bike worth it?

For ease of math, let’s say that a mountain biker makes make $20 an hour, and wants to buy a $10,000 mountain bike. Excluding calculations for income and sales taxes, it will take him 500 hours to earn that mountain bike. At 40 hours a week, that’s 12.5 weeks, or 3 full months of wages going toward that mountain bike.

So the question is: would this rider be happier spending 500 hours to earn a $10,000 mountain bike, or would he be happier spending 50 hours to earn a $1,000 mountain bike, and the other 450 hours actually out riding said mountain bike?

The answer depends on the kind of life that that rider decides he wants to live.

Thought Experiment 2: Adventure VS Fitness

On a true adventure ride in Scotland. Photo: Ross Bell
On a true adventure ride in Scotland. Photo: Ross Bell

When it comes to mountain biking and mountain bike goals, I see a major internal conflict that can be answered by first determining what kind of life you want to live. That conflict is adventure VS fitness.

In my experience, if one’s goal is to develop true top-end fitness–maximum speed and endurance–the pursuit of that max fitness often precludes having true adventures on the mountain bike. Note that I’m not talking about a general fitness level, or being generally able to go a decently long ways on a mountain bike, as those are often a baseline requirement for adventurous mountain bike rides. Rather, I’m talking about building to specific distance, building speed by doing intervals, focusing on specific techniques or heart rate zones–accomplishing these types of goals is nearly impossible when you’re riding in unfamiliar territory on trails you’ve never pedaled before.

The best place to achieve those types of fitness goals is on specific trails that you’ve ridden before that you already know will help you accomplish the specific goals that you wish to attain. Or, more realistically, the road bike is the best place to train, by controlling as many variables as possible so you can focus on pushing the limits on the key variables that you need to expand.

The adventurous mountain bike ride throws any other goals besides completing the adventure out the window. The trail may end up being shorter than you expected, limiting your endurance achievements. It may be significantly longer than expected, meaning you end up doing a long ride when you were supposed to be doing a short day. Instead of riding your bike at an expected speed or heart rate, you may end up carrying your bike for hours on end.

So what’s most important to you: living a life of adventure, or living a life of fitness? Answering that meta-level question will influence many decisions that you make for yourself.

Thought Experiment 3: Travel VS Community

Channeling my inner nomad--exploring the Pyrenees Mountains. Rider: Jordi Bonet. Photo: Greg Heil.
Channeling my inner nomad–exploring the Pyrenees Mountains. Rider: Jordi Bonet. Photo: Greg Heil.

Another conflict based on life choices that I observe in the outdoors community at large, and the mountain bike community in particular, is determining the value of travel versus the value of community. Again, this is a meta-level question, and must first be determined by deciding what kind of life you want to live.

Right now, the hot thing on Outside Online is #VanLife, and anything that goes along with quitting your job, hitting the open road, and roaming freely from place to place. Bonus points if you pack your bags, hop a one-way flight to Europe, and pedal around with no return visit in sight.

But in my experience, what you rarely read about as people set off on these “grand adventures” is how lonely life on the road can be. Sure, you get to meet great people along the way and forge new friendships. I’ve met some amazing people while traveling that I’ve stayed in touch with for years afterwards. But no matter how many people you meet along the way, it’s impossible over the course of a couple of beers to build a relationship as deep and lasting as the ones you can build if you live in the same town and interact with the same people, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade.

True community is nearly impossible to achieve when living a nomadic lifestyle. So what kind of life do you want to live: one of deep and lasting friendships and community, or a solitary existence seeing the most beautiful places imaginable, spending hours upon hours on the back of your mountain bike, and gaining a breadth of experience that few can match?

Final Thoughts

As 2016 draws to a close, I challenge you to ask yourself: “What kind of life do I want to live?” I’m not attempting to give you the answers to the example questions above or to your life in general in this column, although maybe my personal choices are obvious. I’ll save the convincing for another time.

Instead, I encourage you to decide what you personally value in life, and what you want the grand narrative of your life to read like. Based on those decisions, you’ll be more equipped than ever to choose goals for yourself that are meaningful, and you’ll value the accomplishments once they are completed. And hopefully, you’ll live a fuller, richer, and happier life as a result.

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