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How I Didn't Learn to Ski  (and then did learn)

My first day of skiing!  I'm excited, but the rental skis worry me.  They're several inches taller than me, and they look “too big to control.”  On the slope, fears come true quickly and I've lost control, roaring down the slope yelling “Get out of my way!  I can't stop!”  But soon I do stop — flying through the air sideways, a floundering spin, a mighty bellyflop in icy snow.  My boot bindings grip like claws that won't release their captive, and the impact twists my body into a painful pretzel.  Several zoom-and-crash cycles later I'm dazed, in a motionless heap at the foot of the mountain, wondering what I'm doing, why, and if I dare to try again.

My First Ski-Run, ending with a Face-Down Bellyflop

Even the ropetow brings disaster.  I fall down and wallow in the snow, pinned in place by my huge skis, and the embarrassing dogpile begins, as skiers coming up the ropetow are, like dominoes in a line, toppled by my sprawling carcass.  Gosh, it sure is fun to ski.

With time, some things improve.  After the first humorous (for onlookers) and terrifying (for me) trip down the crowded mountain, I have the ski-bindings adjusted so I can bellyflop more safely.  And I develop a strategy of “leap and hit the ground rolling” to minimize ropetow humiliation.  But my skiing doesn't get much better, so — wet and cold, tired and discouraged — I retreat to the safety of the lodge.


A Second Chance

The lodge break is wonderful, just what I need for recovery.  An hour later, after a nutritious lunch topped off with delicious hot chocolate, I'm sitting near the fireplace in warm dry clothes, feeling happy and adventurous again.  A friend tells me about another slope, one that can be reached by chairlift and is much less crowded, and I'm now feeling frisky and bold so I decide to “go for it.”

This time the ride up the mountain is exhilarating.  Instead of feeling the humiliation of causing a ropetow domino dogpile and being on the bottom, the lift carries me high above the earth like a great soaring bird.  The uncrowded slope lets me ski in a sideways traverse (mostly horizontal), without much downward (vertical) accelerating.  Soon, while moving slowly across the hill (not quickly down it) with a new feeling of control, I dare to experiment — and the new experience inspires an insight!  If I press my ski edges against the snow a certain way, they “dig in.”  This edging, combined with a useful insight from other experiments — an “unweight and ski-swing” (a “jump a little so I can swing the skis around” leg-ankle-foot movement) — produces a crude parallel turn that lets me do zig-zag traversing down the slope, in control without runaway speed,* and suddenly I can ski!

or, in more learning-by-experimenting, in control but going faster with a traverse that's “more downhill” before “aiming a little uphill” when I want to slow down and make a turn.

I'm feeling great, eager to “do it again” after each run, and continuing practice now brings rapidly improving skill, with more downhill speed and more confidence.  I still fall down occasionally, but not often, and I'm learning from everything that happens, both good and bad.  And I have a rationally justifiable hope that even better downhill runs are in the future.  Skiing has become fun!


Insight and Practice, Perseverance and Flexibility

My experience illustrates two useful principles for learning:

1) Insight and Quality Practice:  I learned how to ski well by doing it well (with high-quality practice that was effective for learning), not by making mistakes.  There was no fast improving until I discovered the technique of traversing and the strategy-tools (to “unweight & ski-swing, then ski-edge”) for turning.  These insights made my practicing effective so I could quickly develop improved skill:  insight → quality practice → skill.   Working as cooperative partners, insight and practice are a great team.  Together they're much better than either by itself.     {a thinking strategy to help you learn more from experience}

2) Perseverance and Flexibility:  My morning ski runs weren't fun and I didn't learn much, but I kept trying anyway, despite the risk of injury to body and pride.  Eventually this perseverance paid off.  Because I refused to quit in response to frustrating morning failures, I experienced the great joys of afternoon success.  But if I had continued practicing the old techniques over & over, without flexibly moving to the new slope that allowed creative experimenting and learning, I would have reinforced my ineffective techniques, instead of learning the new-and-better way to turn.  Perseverance led to opportunities for additional experience, and flexibility allowed the different new experiences that produced insight and then improved skill.


As illustrated below, sometimes tenacious hard work is needed, and perseverance is rewarded.  Or it may be wise to be flexible – to recognize that what you've been doing may not be the best approach, so it's time to try something new – and when you “dig in a new location” your flexibility pays off.    {combining old + new can improve productive thinking while you are “making it better” by solving problems}

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is needed, so DIG DEEPER.
is needed, so DIG ELSEWHERE.
treasure is beneath hole where man is digging
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treasure is to the side of hole where man is digging

Perseverance and flexibility are contrasting virtues.  When you aim for an optimal balancing of this complementary pair, self-awareness by “knowing yourself” is useful.  Have you noticed a personal tendency to err on the side of either too much perseverance or not enough?  Do you tend to be overly rigid, or too flexible?

Making a wise decision about perseverance — when you ask, “Do I want to continue in the same direction, or change course?” * — is more likely when you have an aware understanding of your situation, your actions, the results, and your goals.  Comparing results with goals is a Quality Check, providing valuable feedback that you can use as a “compass” to help you move in a useful direction.  When you look for signs of progress toward your goals in the direction you're moving, you may have a feeling, based on logic and experience, that your strategy for coordinating the process of problem solving isn't working well, and it probably never will.  Or you may feel that the goal is almost in sight and you'll soon reach it.

* When should you ask this question, and when should you avoid it?  These decisions are part of the valuable metacognitive skill of regulating metacognition based on a knowledge of yourself and your situations.


As part of Experiences in Visual Thinking, Robert McKim discusses the relative merits of perseverance and flexibility:

"When should you abandon one strategy to try another?  When is perseverance a virtue, and when is flexibility?  Sometimes dogged persistence in the use of a single strategy yields a solution:  despite frustration and fatigue, the thinker rattles the same key in the door until it opens.  On the other hand, it may simply be the wrong key.  When staying with one strategy pays off, we call it ‘perseverance’;  when it does not, we call it ‘stubborn inflexibility’.  Genius is often associated with the ability to persevere or, in Edison's terms, to perspire.  Creativity is also linked to the ability to be flexible.  Clearly, we are facing a paradox.  Perseverance and flexibility are opposites that together form an important unity."



Steps and Leaps

In many areas of life,* much of your improvement will come one step at a time.  Each step you take will prepare you for the next step as you make slow, steady progress.  But you can also travel in leaps.  This is possible because many skills are interdependent, which is bad news (if you haven't yet mastered an important tool, everything you do suffers from this weakness) and good news (because key insights can let you make rapid progress, as in my skiing experience).

If you consistently learn from experience by searching for insight, your steps and leaps will soon produce a wonderful transformation.  You will find, increasingly often, that challenges which earlier seemed impossible are becoming things you can now do with ease.    {* Because many people think “I won't ever be able to juggle” so “I don't want to try it and fail” this was featured in the introduction for my book about Do-It-Yourself Juggling. }



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