“Crap,” I thought as I stopped to catch my breath and regain my composure after making a few ugly, graceless moves while running a toboggan down White Lightning, a steep, icy mogul run at Sno Mountain in Scranton, Penn. It was my first loaded-toboggan run down the bumps at the Chicks on Sticks women’s toboggan clinic there last weekend, and I was officially choking.
“Sorry, guys, ” I told my instructor and fellow students, trying to sound breezy and casual, as if the huge, icy moguls hadn’t robbed me of my last ounce of confidence—which, of course, they had. I took a deep breath and muscled through the last portion of the run, feeling like I’d forgotten everything I’d learned during my ski-and-toboggan training at Whitetail this season.
On the lift, I told my instructor for the day that I was horrified to have performed so badly after spending my whole ski season learning how to feel in control in the handles of a toboggan. What she said next surprised me: She said my skills were actually quite good, and that she could tell I just needed experience selecting a route through the bumps and getting the feel for taking a sled through them in varied conditions (Whitetail’s slushy, tightly-spaced moguls did little to prepare me for the icy, sporadic ones we encountered at Sno). She told me the conditions would be tough for even a more experienced patroller, and that my next run would be better.
It was, and the next run was even better than that, leaving me with a giddy sense of accomplishment that only comes after conquering something that’s shaken your confidence and made you question your abilities. It was a pleasant reminder that feeling uncomfortable and untalented and in over your head is a natural part of the learning process, and that being willing to bruise your ego a little is the only sure way to get better.
I’ve been thinking about ego a lot this ski season, after noticing that the most talented instructors are the ones who seemingly have zero ego to them, and after experiencing firsthand the ego-crush that comes with trying to learn something new, and something that exposes all your flaws and makes you feel like a beginner again. For example, the instructor I worked with on Saturday is going through the National Ski Patrol’s Certified program, a super-intense process in which you learn every facet of mountain operations, and fine-tune your skiing and toboggan-handling to an absurdly high level. At the end of the day, as she got ready to go off and work with her own mentor, she confessed that while she loves working with him, it was often discouraging to try to ski up to his level.
Wow. It’s almost like the best skiers (and runners, and swimmers, and humans) are typically not the ones with oversize egos because they’re constantly pushing themselves out of their own ever-increasing comfort zones, and because they realize there’s always a higher level to aspire to. (Imagine that!)
I was lucky enough on Saturday—and all season—to work with instructors who had a good sense of which scary or difficult task would push me to the next level without totally destroying me. Most of the time, though, we have to choose our own challenges, and give ourselves our own lift-ride pep talks, in which we remind ourselves that the task we’re trying to accomplish isn’t hard because we’re bad, but because—well, because it’s just empirically hard. My hope is that next time I feel like I’m in a little bit over my head, I can do just that.
When’s the last time you let your ego get beaten up in the pursuit of a goal that felt out of your reach?