By Anne Gagliano
Easy Rider is the title of the most famous motorcycle movie ever made. Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and a young Jack Nicholson, it chronicles their outrageous journey from LA to New Orleans. Peter Fonda plays “Wyatt,” who’s nicknamed “Captain America” after his chopped, panhead Harley-Davidson. The bike with its American flag gas tank epitomizes the chopper genre and still looms large as its iconic symbol. Here’s a fun bit of Gagliano family history: My husband Mike’s dad, Mickey Gagliano, once owned Chopper Specialties, a “chopper shop” in Stanton, California. While filming Easy Rider, three of the original Captain America choppers were stolen and the fourth was crashed. Mickey Gagliano was chosen to make the Captain America chopper that was subsequently taken across the country for the film’s promotion. That’s Mickey on the bike he created in the photo. Pretty neat, huh? Many people have asked me how Mike got to be so cool—that’s partly why. He was basically born to be an “easy rider.”
The term “easy rider” originated with horsemanship but over time has come to apply to motorcycling as well. An easy rider is an expert at “staying on” without being easily thrown. What does it take to be an expert horseman or biker? Resilience. An even temper. Composure. Equanimity. Balance. The expert is able to ride in any circumstances such as bad weather, bad roads, or on a bad-tempered horse or bike. If he does get thrown, what does he do? He gets right back on. He adapts, endures, and soldiers on to finish the course. Life is a road we all must travel; those who travel it best are those who become experts, making that which is actually incredibly difficult look easy.
There are many curves in the road with unexpected, hidden dangers. We can’t foresee everything; sometimes we have to ride nearly blind when darkness and fog descend. During tough times, we all have to slow down, but some become so debilitated by fear as to simply stop moving. We all hit bumps in the road and even get thrown on occasion. When this happens, we have two choices: either be resilient or be a ruminator. A ruminator is one who, instead of getting “back on,” chooses to remain lying face down in the road. He spirals into a morbid, self-involved attitude of despair and defeat as the rest of the world passes him by. He is the victim. Everyone else is to blame. And he seeks out those who will endorse or perpetuate this helpless mentality.
Unfortunately in our country today, an entire industry has developed to glorify “the victim.” They actually make money by encouraging frailty. They convince people that they “cannot help themselves.” And the lazy, disillusioned masses line up to buy the lie. It is easier to blame than it is to take responsibility for failure and change your behavior. Gone are the old heroic role models of the self-sufficient, tough, resilient cowboys.
Is resilience a character trait? Actually, no—it is a learned response. Anyone can be resilient. It has nothing to do with I.Q. One astute definition of success says it requires just 25% talent, 75% resilience. It is hard to put into words what resilience actually means, but we know it when we see it. It’s heart, it’s soul, it’s tenacity and grit. We see it in a washed-up boxer named Rocky Balboa who takes the beating of a lifetime from heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Apollo is superior in training, experience, and even size—but because he has heart, Rocky manages to “go the distance,” and we love him for it. We see it in a little hobbit with the soul of a lion who manages to conquer the devil himself when all others have failed, and we love him for it. And we see it in Rooster Cogburn, a salty but honest U.S. marshal who, though outgunned and outnumbered, manages to capture the bad guys with nothing but true grit, and we love him for it.
We see resilience in the movies we love, and fortunately for us all, it’s in the real world too. Many wildly successful people have exhibited incredible gumption in the face of overwhelming odds. From Helen Keller to Oprah Winfrey; from Thomas Edison to Walt Disney; from Teddy Roosevelt to Winston Churchill, all report massive failures as part of their road to success. The key for them? Getting “back on the horse” to try and try again. They told themselves when “thrown,” “I have … I am … I can” instead of “I do not have … I am not … I cannot.” In other words, they became very “good” at failing. What does it take to fail better?
It begins by acknowledging that everyone fails, all the time. In fact, people fail more often than they succeed. Bruce Pandolfini, a world-famous chess master, says that the kids who “make it” are the ones who can “handle losing.” He says that chess is a game of failure; those who can’t stand to fail or choose to take it personally never become experts.
Handling failure requires a sense of humor. If we think we’re so perfect as to never make mistakes, we won’t be able to laugh at ourselves when we do. And laughing is so much better than crying.
When you fail, it’s okay to feel guilt; it’s not okay to feel shame. Guilt is healthy; it’s ownership of a wrong choice or even a bad one. But feeling shame perpetuates a victim mentality or a learned helplessness. Shame makes you believe you deserve to fail and always will, so why bother?
When you fail, scale down your expectations. When we succeed, we tend to ratchet up our self-expectations, and this often leads to stress and unhappiness. But sometimes we have to face reality and readjust those lofty goals to more modest ones if we’re ever to have any peace.
And the most important skill for failing well—cultivate optimism. Hamlet tells us, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Optimism is positive thinking. Anxiety is dwelling on garbage. The “cup is half full” way of thinking infuses us with hope and makes hardship and adversity lose their sting. When negative thoughts threaten to cripple and leave you lying helpless in the road, defend yourself as a lawyer would and refute each and every charge. How we choose to “think” is one of our greatest and most powerful weapons against the enemy of momentum—self-pity.
And remember, Easy Riders, no one rides alone. We’re all together on this road called life. Look to others when you need encouragement and be just as willing to give it. Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” So be of good cheer when you fail, and be gracious and humble when you succeed, as every life is chock full of both.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.