Words by Katie Hake
Do you like how descriptive I am? My last post was about “trying things,” and this one is about being bad “at stuff.”
Writing is hard. Finding the right words in your head and translating them into cohesive, pretty sentences on a page (digital or otherwise) is hard. But I do it anyway, because as Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Words to live by, people.
Which is all to say that this babbling introduction is relevant to what I’ve been thinking about recently, because this is a story about failure.
I’ve always been competitive by nature; it runs in my family. We play card games at family get-togethers with high levels of shaming, name-calling, and the occasional shedding of tears.
This competitive blood coursing through my veins was useful for playing sports when I was growing up, but it also means that I get irrationally angry when I’m not naturally good at something I’ve never done before (or even something I have done before.)
Take, for example, cross-country skiing.
A few weeks ago, I ventured up to the northern woods of New Hampshire with some friends to kick it in a cabin for a weekend and try out some cross-country skis.
I had cross-country skied twice before – once with a bulky framepack, no less – but this trip, I still managed to fail pretty epically at going downhill.
You know: the part where your skis start moving faster and you have no idea how to stop, and your downhill-skiing instincts kick in so you try to slow yourself down by digging the sides of your skis into the snow, which results in you falling over at speed. Multiple times.
After several instances of this, I was starting to let my frustration get to me, tears pricking at the corners of my eyes and snow wedging itself into the recesses of my jacket from my various falls. I was cold. I was also sweaty.
And I was mad. Why could I not do this? I’d already done this activity twice before! There was no excuse for such failure! I grew up playing sports and I was an athlete by nature, dammit, so there was no way I couldn’t be naturally gifted at every athletic endeavor I tried!
As you can imagine, this was a winning mindset. I skied beautifully for the rest of the day.
Actually, I had lost sight of what brought me up to the woods in the first place: the friends, the solitude, the enjoyment of skiing through a quiet forest in winter. Which I was totally missing out on because I couldn’t let go of my expectations. I couldn’t slow down, take my time, focus on each downhill slope, and lean into the occasional crash.
So I found myself on the ground again, upset that everyone else was so far ahead and I had snow in crevices it shouldn’t be in.
And I gave up, just for a second.
Which meant that I gave up on being the best (that was never going to happen), or even keeping up with the pack, or being fast.
Instead, I shifted to appreciation. Of the woods, and their silence and distance from distractions. Of my boyfriend, who had been sticking with me and getting me through each downhill and resting with me when I felt like staying down for a few minutes. Of my ability to rent skis and get outside for a weekend.
There was no magical moment where I realized that all I had to do to succeed was appreciate what I already had. I was still being a brat at this stage, still simmering with shame over having been too “bad” to keep up, still sweaty and snowy.
But the shame was starting to subside.
And I took a few seconds, down there on the ground, to just look around. Take in the trees. Breathe in some fresh New Hampshire air.
Then I got up and got coached through another slope.
I was a better skier after that.
Ah, humans. We’re such funny creatures. We reach one milestone, and instead of celebrating what we’ve accomplished, we immediately look ahead to see what we can compare ourselves to next.
As soon as we accept the reality that someone is always going to be better than us at something, we’ll have a much better time of it.
Which makes it all the more important to completely, utterly fail at things sometimes. To be bad at something. To not even come close to seeming cool or “winning,” as badly as we might wish to. Because where’s the fun in being great at everything?
OK, it would be kind of fun to be great at everything. But there’s no challenge in that, which means no growth, either.
Things I am not great at include but are not limited to: losing gracefully at board games, limiting my sugar intake, being on time, coding in Python, painting my nails, and rock climbing.
And, apparently, going downhill on cross-country skis.
But I’m working on it.
Read more from Katie on her site:
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I’ve made the choice to dedicate my life to my passion, and that doesn’t come without sacrifice. There are more days than not that not having a wife, a family or an established career can eat away at me. I experience a lot of loneliness because of my choices. I’m 45 years old, and there are days I wonder if I’ll ever have a different response to the questions people ask me. Sitting on a mountain top, tent flap open, sun going down, a majestic aura all around me fills me with inconceivable joy, but it also has its moments of aching solitude.