[How-to] On Learning to Unicycle


Photo credit: Stefano Corso (flickr: pensiero)

This is an essay on learning how to unicycle.  It’s more philosophy than how-to guide, so be forewarned/get excited.

(i) A Thousand Falls

The simplest advice I can give to learn how to ride a unicycle is this: fall off a unicycle a thousand times.

Of course, there’s a bit more technique to it, but this is the gist.  Fall off, get on, try again.  Repeat ten-hundred times.

I, like most people I know, learned how to ride a bike at a very young age.  And although I don’t remember the specifics, I’d imagine I fell off hundreds of times before I got it quite right.  That’s quite a few skinned knees.  Yet I have zero recollection of it.

But that’s the nature of kids, isn’t it?  They dive in with confidence and just keep trying.  Setbacks fade fast.

I think we forget that as we grow older.  No longer do we forget failure with such alacrity.  We’re a little less bold in how we approach our endeavors.  But I accidentally found a blast from that past, and it has one wheel and a seat.  Never since childhood have I failed so frequently at something and kept going.

And never has it felt so great to finally learn!  Finally being able to balance is great, but even the process leading up to it is exciting.  Your progress isn’t linear, so the entire process is you improving slowly, but also in leaps in bounds.  You’ll spend a few hours of unicycling time going just inches before bailing.  Then you’ll upgrade to feet.  Later, you’ll clear ten feet.  And a few days after that, a hundred.  And then you’ve got it.  At some point, you just stop falling off.  Crap, it feels wonderful.

(ii) Blue-Collar Failures

One thing that stuck out to me about falling off a unicycle was that it was a pretty objective measure of failure.

And we don’t have that a lot.  Or at least, I don’t.

In a lot of projects I work on, motivated waxes and wanes; excitement fades away, and perfectly good ideas are never brought to glorious execution.  It’s easy to rationalize these abandoned dreams.  Failure becomes less tangible.  It looks less like defeat and more like procrastination.  It’s not a knock-out blow to the head; it’s a dull sense of regret and a light flurry of rationalized excuses.

Unicycling is not that way.  Unicycling leans way towards the “knock-out blow to the head” side of things, especially owing to the fact that you’re unicycling on pavement.  And let me tell you: pavement makes a great judge of your ability.  It lets you know exactly when you’re making mistakes, and it lets you know exactly when you’re succeeding.  It pulls no punches.

Hitting the pavement is a different type of failure than an uncompleted project that fades into regret.  I’d call it blue-collar failure.  A firm external standard lets you know if you have mastered your trade or not.  “How’s that car project coming?” “Piece of junk still doesn’t start”.  There’s no debate here.

A white-collar failure is more amorphous.

“Have you launched your website yet?” “Oh, no, I’ve been pretty busy with the kids.”

“Hey, you were gonna start a business right?  How’s that going?” “Oh, alright.  I just bought this SEO book I want to get through before really diving into things.”

“How’s your blog going?” “Hm, well I haven’t posted in a while… but I’m learning a ton.”

That’s white-collar failure.  It’s pathetic.  But heavens, is it insidious.  It’s not like the pavement, which says “you have 100% failed at balancing on your wheel”.  Instead, white-collar failure says things like “you can do it later”.  And human beings, we just aren’t built for this kind of failure.  We’re built for killing the animal vs. going hungry.  We’re built for surviving the night vs. freezing to death in your sleep.  None of this well-it-didn’t-go-according-to-plan,-but-I-learned-a-lot-and-the-only-real-failure-is-giving-up crap.

The question is what to do about it.

This blog is a response to that question.

(iii) Fail Left, Fail Right

On one particular day I was learning to unicycle, I kept falling off backwards, where basically the unicycle just runs itself into the ground 5 or 10 feet ahead of you and topples over.

Another unicyclist was watching me (the unicyclists I knew met– and learned– in groups, Thursdays at midnight.  Yes, it was college) and she casually mentioned a piece of advice that is perhaps one of the greatest maxims of skill acquisition I have ever heard.

“You should really try to alternate between falling off forward and falling off backward”, she said.

So let’s say for a particular attempt, I would promise myself I’d fall off forwards, so that the unicycle shoots behind me when I fall.  While pedaling, I would lean a little bit forward, but also still try to balance of course.

Then I’d fall.

Then I’d take another stab at it, but leaning a bit more backwards this time.  However, my last attempt was practice at not leaning too far backwards, because I knew I wanted to fall off forwards.  So even though I wanted to fall off backwards, I would be just a tad better at not doing it, which would mean I’d be a tad better at staying on.

Do that 20 times and you’ll make more progress than you thought possible in 10 minutes.

This is generalizable to learning anything that requires balance.  Physical skills are obvious.  I tried this with waterskiing, and it took 4 falls before I could circle the lake indefinitely (granted I was holding on with both hands and nothing fancy, but still).  I could imagine doing the same with boxing.  “Keep your uppercut closer…  Not that close…  Perfect.”

What about non-physical skills?  We call many things in our lives “balancing acts”.  If you purposely fail in a few different directions, will it help you learn the happy median faster?  What about other situations that require you to find an optimal point in a sea of possible solutions?  Hundreds of years ago, Isaac Newton developed a method for finding the solution (or “zero”) to an equation.  For many equations, alternating your guesses on both sides of the zero is an incredibly efficient way to find the solution.  Good for unicycling, good for math.  I’ll leave the rest to you.

* * *

Learning how to unicycle was one of the best things I did in college.  But it’s not like it impresses girls, and I sure don’t want to join the circus.  So why was it useful?  It taught me how to learn a bit better, and it taught me how to fail a bit better.

Now this is ostensibly a how-to article, so I’ll take a moment to oblige.

Here are the rules to unicycling.  Follow these and the wheel will practically balance itself.

  1. Start by following a wall with one hand for balance.  Move to pushing off from a tall, solid object.  Then learn to free mount– that is, start riding from stand-still
  2. Alternate falling off forwards and falling off backwards
  3. Focus on making your pedaling smooth, particularly when one foot is at the bottom of its rotation
  4. Fall off 1000 times

Go get ‘em.

  1. July 6, 2012

    I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s equally educative and amusing, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is something not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy I came across this during my hunt for something relating to this.


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