Most people know what they want to do in life, they just haven't allowed themselves to do it yet. - Brian Kates
Losing Sight Along a Linear Path
You know those kids who ask their parents “why?” all the time? Well, that would have been me I suspect, were I not such a quiet kid. From an early age I wanted to know how everything worked. In hindsight, I was also an extremely creative kid. I would make mazes in my spare time, loved music, and would jump at the opportunity to build something cool. Not real, functional things, but rather popsicle stick bridges or sugar cube castles. I almost went to an art school in Grade 3, but cried at the thought of being forced to wear ballet shoes. Despite my insistence that I was clearly a genius at visual art, the admissions office had explained that my real strength was as a singer/dancer; a natural talent for musical theatre.
Somewhere down the line in life I had become a creative, energetic, sensitive, and funny person stuck in a boring, logical, regimented and fearful man’s body. I was always a smart and well-rounded kid, but put a lot of pressure on myself to do well in school. While I was always fairly mediocre at math, by high school something seemed to click for me, and I went from near failing grades to perfect scores on every math test. By the end of high school, my focus had changed from creative and artistic pursuits, to almost exclusively math and science ones. I also felt pressure to fast-track due to being stuck in Ontario’s double cohort year, where double the number of students were expected to be competing for the same number of university spots.
By the time I got to university, I felt as if I was on a fast track to the societal definition of adulthood (job, house, wife, 2 kids), with everything but my academic success being left behind. I was ranked 1st in my class in mechanical engineering, and I was miserable. My success pushed me to continue to succeed, but I had lost track of where I was even trying to go. I liked learning, and enjoyed most of my classes, but I hated the co-op jobs and felt socially isolated. At the age of 19 I was already working a 9-5 office job as a mechanical engineer with mostly middle-aged men. My high school friends were enjoying being teenagers for the summer, while I was photocopying paper and reading about boilers. I remembered being much more than just a math guy, but the other parts of myself were beginning to atrophy.
On the Road to Creating New Opportunities
I knew I needed a change, but I also felt like I needed to complete the program. It’s difficult to quit something when you’ve invested a lot of time and energy, and especially when you’ve been successful. So I kept chugging along and tried to hold on to my sanity for a while longer. “Engineering is like the military,” so they said.
By third year I had earned enough money working at a co-op job in the oil sands to afford my first car. I bought a used Honda Prelude, a relatively affordable and reasonably fast sports car, and was the envy of all my classmates. But for some reason I was not only intimidated by the idea of working on cars, but also ashamed of liking cars so much in the first place. With some encouragement from my roommate, I finally got the courage to do minor tasks. I began to obsess over car modifications almost immediately, and would skip class to tinker with the car. I started buying and selling parts on Craigslist, and met up with backyard mechanics to have work done for cheap. If my friends asked what I was doing, I would lie. “What’s that? Why do I have a carbon fiber hood? Well… I didn’t really want to do that or anything, it just sort of ended up there.”
By the last year of university I had given up on engineering jobs, and had no real plan for where I was going to go next. I made one of the best decisions of my life and took my last co-op term off to instead travel to Costa Rica where I learned Spanish and volunteered saving sea turtles. Suddenly I felt alive again! Parts of me that had laid dormant for years were reawoken. I enjoyed the challenge of learning a new language, learning how to salsa dance, and meeting travellers from all over the world. After I finally graduated from university I decided to live as I did in Costa Rica. I rented a room in Toronto with international students and took physics courses for fun. I took a bartending course, and worked at the university cafeteria serving beer and shawarma. I would laugh when engineering students saw my ring as they ordered: “You’re an engineer?” They would ask. “Yes I am!” I would say proudly as I dropped mashed potatoes on their plate. “Would you like sweet and sour sauce or corn with that?”
I went on to travel to Australia for half a year, and when I finally came back I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was eager to use my degree in some way, but wanted something more creative. I eventually decided to go back to school and get a masters in biomedical engineering. But as soon as I started an internship in the field, I could sense that it still wasn’t the right fit for me. To make things worse, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer just at the beginning of the program. Within a month, before I had time to process what was happening, I had surgery to remove my thyroid. I made a promise to myself that day: I was no longer going to live life by anyone else’s rules.
Taking Charge of the Road Ahead
I started doing a great deal of research on personality types in an attempt to understand myself better. I wanted to know why it was so hard for me to work as an engineer at a company, and why I didn’t like sitting in front of a computer. When I finally took a Myers-Briggs personality test it started to dawn on me. I read the description of my type, INFP, and it sounded like the author was describing my exact story. My struggles, my strengths and my weaknesses were laid out on paper exactly as I had experienced them in my life.
I finally understood what I needed. For me, it was most important to have autonomy, to be working on something that I could truly believe in, and to be authentically creative. I had never truly allowed myself to indulge in all three requirements, for fear that I would come across as selfish or entitled, and for fear that I couldn’t accomplish what I wanted on my own.
By the time I finished my master’s, I had been buying and selling motorcycles for three years and was getting addicted to the hobby. Like cars, I was hesitant at first to work on bikes myself. But I had tried a few different types, and was finally set on buying something cheap I could work on and transform into something unique. I continued to work as a biomedical researcher at a hospital, but my main interest became customizing my bike. I would stay late to spend time in the machine shop at the lab making parts for my motorcycle.
The real “aha” moment came after I started reading motorcycle blogs, and took notice of a new wave of custom motorcycles hitting the scene. There were some people just like me who had been struggling to find employment related to their degrees due to the state of the economy, and who had turned to building really interesting looking motorcycles. I saw a video about a guy named Tim Harney, who went from a secure job in architecture to building custom bikes, and I knew instantly it was what I wanted to do. In fact I remember declaring to my partner, Rebecca, that I was now going to be a motorcycle builder, working out of a grungy shop, with a dog just hanging out as I worked. She was excited for about a night, before she realized I was serious.
I quit my job as a researcher and started doing everything I could to prepare myself as a motorcycle builder. But I was terrified. I hadn’t worked as a tradesperson before, and I hadn’t yet done much work on motorcycles. I spent the next year volunteering at Habitat for Humanity, working as an HVAC technician’s assistant, taking welding courses, and working on my bike. At the beginning of the year I’m pretty sure everyone I know thought I was crazy.
“But you can’t make money on motorcycles, it’s cold in Canada!”
I didn’t care. The more my loved ones pushed me to get a normal job, the more I pushed back. I started working with an auto mechanic who said he would help me do the welding for my bike project, and teach me basic mechanic skills. While he did help me finish the welding, the arrangement went sour after only a few weeks, as he didn’t have enough time to teach me what I needed to know. The mechanic even went as far as to tell me that I wouldn’t make it in the industry, and that I shouldn’t quit my day job. His attitude only made me work harder.
After several months, and a roller coaster of ups and downs, I finally finished my first complete motorcycle customization this July. I haven’t made money from any of the work I’ve done, but I see it as an investment and as the first piece of work for my portfolio. I also have a plan in place for how I’m going to develop my business, and where I’m going to go from here. I’ve started to get a small amount of interest from family and friends to work on bikes, and have my first custom build for a customer scheduled to start soon.
Motorcycle before customization Motorcycle after customization
Staying On Course
I read an interview recently with a young motorcycle mechanic who has completed a showcased custom build. She said something so simple, but so important in finding your way in life that I think it’s appropriate here. The most important advice she got was to: “look where you want to go.”
“This applies to more than just riding. You must know where you want to go, it’s the getting there that creates the memories. Sure sometimes its not great, but you need those hard times to learn and that is what gets you closer to your goals, and gets to to where you want to go.” – Sophia Tsingos
It’s a concept we use in motorcycling to stay on course in a turn. As long as you look where you want to go, your body knows what to do to get you through the turn safely. We all get distracted somewhere along the way from where we truly want to go. But if we can stay confident, all we have to do is keep looking.
Brian Kates is a motorcycle enthusiast who loves to ride and customize bikes. He also writes about his projects and his experience transitioning on his blog Of Minds and Motorcycles (click here to follow link). For more information about his company Motobrix and his bike customization projects email firstname.lastname@example.org.