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Can’t leave well enough alone

Ostensibly, the aim of customizing our motorcycles is to improve their comfort, safety, appearance, or performance, but something else compels us to spend inordinate amounts of time, effort, and angst in this process. There’s no other way to justify the inefficiencies and disproportionate investments involved, since the gains made are often inconsequentially miniscule – not to mention our results are sometimes worse than what existed before.

Of course, there are genuine successes. This accessory actually did make a world of difference, and didn’t even cost much! Some expensive mods are worth every penny, especially when amortized over years of enjoyment. However, I bet these outstanding values represent only a small minority of the tweaks we motorcyclists perform on our bikes. It’s hard to make a rational argument for most of the resources we lavish on our machinery.

If the stated goals aren’t the true or total driving force behind our customizing efforts, then what else accounts for them? We must look not at our motorcycles, but at ourselves. There is a rational explanation, but not in the terms we use to rationalize our behavior. Emotional dynamics follow a logic of their own. Said logic is legitimate and consistent, though it doesn’t conform to the same rules we apply in other domains. It starts with different premises, based on our subjective concerns, needs, and perceptions, instead of objective facts. Our inherent nature outweighs concrete realities.

Human beings are a creative bunch. Whether or not we consider ourselves artists, we express ourselves constantly. What we choose to wear, how we arrange our environments, the words we use, all reveal things about us – our histories, priorities, worries, and affiliations, among myriad other attributes. If we fully realized our transparency, we’d be paralyzed by self-consciousness. (Fortunately, we typically don’t have the mental room to ponder that!) Regardless of whether we have a Twitter account, we’re all “tweeting” all the time, just like the birds that inspired that app’s metaphor; they announce their identities continuously with their distinctive calls.

Our motorcycles are extensions of our identities. This can be a matter of broadcasting an image, like that of a fearless, powerful competitor (sporting hardware, big motors), an unstoppable adventurer (ADV or touring rig, stickers from distant lands), or numerous other possibilities. Such communication can be authentic, aspirational, or fraudulent. There’s another type of identity enhanced by our motorcycles, too. They become extensions of our bodily selves, and reflect back qualities such as competence, versatility, reliability, and grace – or lack thereof. In this way, they tweet about us to ourselves, no matter if anyone else is watching.

A basic, universal tenet of human nature is our need to see ourselves in a positive light. Individuals define “positive” in widely varying ways, including polar opposites, but the abstract principle remains. Frequently, we try to compensate for what we consider weakness with displays of strength, inadequacies with displays of achievement, and neediness with displays of self-sufficiency. By convincing others, we hope to become believers ourselves, or maybe we’ll “fake it ’til we make it,” and acquire the desired characteristics via repetitive imitation. When events or discoveries threaten to puncture our balloons of self-regard, we reflexively rally our defenses to avoid the resultant shame and despair. When deflation is unavoidable, we seek solace in whatever form is available, healthy or unhealthy, and restore a positive identity through realistic or unrealistic means as quickly as possible.

Even while under no immediate threat of injury to our self-esteem, we routinely bolster it with habitual activities. This isn’t the only reason we do things, but it’s more of a driving force than most realize. We keep things tidy to maintain a sense of ourselves as righteous and in control or let entropy rule to prove we’re above such concerns. We obey or defy social conventions to associate ourselves with the group we admire most. We take care of others to demonstrate our dependability or seek rescue to verify our worthiness. The list is long, so let’s cut to the chase: we perfect our motorcycles, at least in part, to perfect ourselves.

Whether it’s to project an image outward or reflect an image inward, our motorcycles provide us with an irresistible canvas on which to paint our self-portraits. After selecting a bike because its attributes align with our needs, we still want to make it uniquely our own by imprinting it with our ideals, tailoring it to fit us just right, and using it to carve out a niche in the world where things are as we believe they should be.

With so much at stake psychologically, it’s no mystery we make great sacrifices to eke out even tiny – or illusory – improvements in our beloved machines. Regardless of the outcome, it’s the involvement that’s so deeply gratifying. Polishing doesn’t make a body panel work better, but it does make the piece feel better to us (look at my reflection!), so the effort is worthwhile. The mere possibility of another success supplies ample motivation. When life leaves us feeling out of control, applying our skills with a wrench restores a sense of order and agency. Between crises, every completed project builds our identities as effective problem-solvers, bolstering our confidence in facing challenges elsewhere. Travelers say, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” For motorcyclists, this applies not only to the trip, but the vehicle itself.

Intense involvement is the heart of enthusiasm. The investments made – not in terms of money, time, or effort, but of emotional energy – make customization deeply personal. Being an enthusiast means having a highly charged relationship with the objects of one’s enthusiasm. This invariably requires a finely tuned interface between human and gear, whether we’re talking about baseball player and glove, photographer and camera, or musician and instrument. It’s certainly no less true of motorcyclists and their bikes. The boundary between person and thing must dissolve for the two to become one, for the magic to happen.

Whose life can’t use a little more magic?

Follow Mark’s journey towards perfecting his F 800 GT with the OPERATION BUZZ-KILL series, starting with his review of Grip Puppies.