I've never previously skied in my life. So starting at the age of 50 may well have seemed like a foolish idea. I have to confess that skiing has never been a life ambition of mine. However, family duty meant that a skiing holiday planned almost a year in advance was on the cards.
The picture below is us with our instructor, Christoph in early April 2016:
In total 21 of us with my wife Sally's family went away to France. We as the Raheja family had never skied before and so it seemed prudent to get lessons and take things cautiously. After a week of learning with my family I was clearly the slowest learner and most remedial skier of all of us. Sally's family who are all very experienced have been very good at encouraging and being patient with us, especially me.
One week and thankfully no broken bones later here are some reflections and lessons from that time away. My intention is for this exercise in self-indulgence to encourage you in whatever challenges you may be facing:
1. The power of low expectations.
As I mentioned, I really did not know what to expect. However, going into skiing with no preconceived ideas, but simply to embrace the experience for what it was made for an incredibly enjoyable week. There was nothing to compare it to and so we were able to enjoy the time for what it was - a holiday to get away from the usual routines and pressures of day to day life. So often tensions and frustrations arise because of previous expectations that are not realised. It is in that gap between what we hope for and what we actually experience comes so much disappointment and angst. (See Which Way Are You Looking Part 1 and Part 2).
2. The power of being in the present moment.
When you start skiing you have the challenge of a slope to conquer in front of you. You begin to wonder if you are going to be able to get down in one piece without falling or breaking any bones. That does bring incredible concentration and focus on the present moment! So much of our life is spent in preoccupation with the past or thinking about the future. There is something very liberating about being completely in the present moment. In fact all you and I have is the present moment.
3. The danger of comparison.
I was definitely the slowest learner and most cautious skier out of my family (indeed of the whole group of us). By the time I had mastered the slope at the end of the week, I learnt it was called 'the nursery slope'! I was surrounded by 3 and 4 year olds, many of whom were clearly far more accomplished and better than me at skiing! But that was fine. I had come to learn to ski and certainly not to win any awards. We were there to simply have a good time and that is what we had. Also when you master one slope you find yourself a beginner again on another slope...
4. The power of feedback.
I am so glad we took lessons. At times looking at the challenging slope in front of me, everything within me seemed to say it was impossible that I would be able to do it. However, with the real time feedback from our instructor Christoph, it was so helpful to be told what I was doing wrong (even though there seemed at the time little I could do about it) and be encouraged when I was actually getting it right. What was exhilarating was seeing myself accomplish what only a few hours or a day earlier had seemed impossible. Without the feedback, I am sure I would have just kept falling and got more discouraged.
5. Expect to fall, but then just get yourself back up again.
Learning to ski is all about falling and getting back up to try again. So long as you don't cause any lasting damage and are away from danger, falling is part of the experience. Yes it probably hurts more (both physically and psychologically) the older you get, but learning from the experience can be so helpful. The important thing is that experience per se is not enough - what makes the difference is evaluated experience. As Churchill said, "Success is going from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." By correctly evaluating what went well and what didn't go so well, it becomes possible to move forward and keep some degree of motivation.
6. Be careful of the story you tell yourself.
When I had fallen down a number of times and started to question whether I could ever master the techniques our instructor was teaching us, I noticed how incredibly easy it was to start a negative story in my head. That story went along the lines as to why I could never learn and also how my poor performance as a skier meant that I was no good at anything.
When this happens over a prolonged period of time psychologists report how this can lead to the state of ‘learned helplessness’. Basically the brain shuts down and stops trying to find a way out of the situation you are in. How does that manifest? The psychologist Martin Seligman talks about the 3 Ps of thinking style that can result and are a hallmark of depressive thinking:
Personal: what that means is that I take the one situation where I am not getting what I want and I explain it to myself in a negative way with me at the centre. There is self-talk of self blame: ‘I am not cut out for this. I am no good at (you fill in the blank)’. The thinking is that I am bad in some way.
Pervasive: instead of seeing what is happening to me as a specific, isolated event, I generalise to the whole of my life. I lose perspective and can only see everything as bad and as a disastrous failure.
Permanent: rather than seeing the frustrating event as a single event in a single point in time, I perceive it as permanent. At its extreme I tell myself there is no hope and there is no reason to hope.
In the severest form this state of learned helplessness can lead to suicide. In the milder form it can lead to a negative outlook and fear of making a mistake or just a bad attitude. That is why when you fail at skiing or any event it is vitally important that you are careful what story you say to yourself. (For more on this see What Story Are You Telling Yourself?).
7. Learn when to say enough is enough.
I can see why skiing can become addictive. The exhilaration of conquering a slope; the beautiful weather and the fun of going down can be so much fun. When you finally master a slope or feel you are close to, you want to keep going again and again. That was certainly my experience. It has been shown that anticipating outcomes, be they positive or negative, leads to different chemical reactions in the brain. When we anticipate a good outcome then this leads to an increase in the chemical dopamine in the brain. Among other things, dopamine helps the brain to be awake and interested, which is very important in overall performance and functioning. Having said that, the desire for that 'dopamine hit' can lead to a desire to just keep going and going. You need to be able to say when enough is enough.
Thank you for indulging me in this exercise of self-reflection. Which of these resonate with you?
If you enjoyed this post you may also find of interest 7 Lessons From a Passport