The life-changing magic of being bad at things

The stubborn part of me keeps thinking I’ll find something I’m a prodigy at — that the first time I try, sparks will fly.

Skiing is not it, I realized as I fell for the tenth time into the snow, adding to my embarrassing nebulae of bruises. Insult joined injury when, after I hauled myself upright on the pair of slippery waxed boards fixed to my feet, I watched others coasting gracefully around on said waxed boards like Nordic snow fairies. No, I am not a skiing prodigy.

I am bad at being bad at things. This does not mean I am good at things. This literally means that I, a human adult, throw temper tantrums and turn red in the face when I can’t figure something out. I am liable to cry when I fall off the rock climbing wall at the same place for the fourteenth time. Rage at myself narrows my vision when I can’t overcome my fear of heights to enjoy climbing to the tops of the mountains I love so much.

Learning to skate ski has been a particularly punishing lesson. Those of you who have skied a long time won’t understand how hard it is to teach yourself the step turn on one of the convulsing downhills of the Tsalteshi Trails. I have gone face-first into the snowdrift on the right side of the Beaver Trail more times than I care to admit. There’s a particularly tricky hill on the Wolf Run that has become my nemesis.

It’s embarrassing more than physically, too. I probably shouldn’t mention how much Googling it took me to figure out what skate skiing was. Was it a type of classic skiing? Aren’t all skiing types technically across country? Do they become downhill skiing when you hit a hill? And how on earth am I supposed to go up a hill? What’s a herringbone?

Purchasing equipment at the Kenai Central High School ski swap in October was another lesson in humility. The helpful young men there were very accommodating, even when I’m already embarrassed that I have to buy junior skis because I’m too short for adults’ skis. The staff at Beemun’s Bike and Ski Loft is also helpful in picking out equipment, but it doesn’t alleviate my hot-faced embarrassment about not being able to figure it out myself.

I have few armaments against my own incompetence other than determination. I’ve strong-armed my way through most of my skills in life so far: I taught myself to read as a toddler, learned how to navigate city streets on a road bike, limped my way through learning the violin by watching YouTube videos and reading free texts and spent a winter locked in a cabin reading fisheries technical papers to teach myself as much as I could to be able to competently interview lifelong fishermen.

But once you’re good at something, you forget the wounds it took to acquire that skill. My confidence on a road bike came at the cost of several unfortunate run-ins with cars and some nasty road rashes. My poor mother may have a permanent aversion to the violin after all the ugly sounds I made with it in our living room.

There are inherent virtues in first being bad at something. One is simple: the humility that comes in having to watch others succeed while you fail. Another is more complex: the things you learn about the function of your own mind from trying to wrap around an entirely foreign skill are not dissimilar to exploring an unfamiliar galaxy.

Determination is a virtue often disparaged as stubbornness, and in all honesty, I’ve got a lot of that in me, too. But one of the encouragements I give myself when I’m inclined to give up is that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to do. If I just work hard enough, just sweat enough, just withstand a little more ache, I’ll make it. And it’s easy to forget the agony of the struggle when you’re standing on the peak of a mountain it took a mountain of effort to climb.

Skiing requires the use of muscles I am sadly still in the market for. It requires balance that I didn’t realize I was so badly lacking. I didn’t realize how frightened I was of losing my footing and of going fast down a hill. Now that I’m hammering out the fear, I can apply that to mountain biking, mountain running and anything else that involves going breakneck speeds with questionable brakes. (A valuable skill, of course.)

The way I acquire those skills, and the memory of the people who have the patience to teach them to me, is going to be entirely mine. There is nothing so entirely my own as my own story, and learning to be good at something is a lifelong journey adding further color to the map of my life. I imagine, as a rickety old lady stiff with the scars of my adventures past, I may still light up upon telling the stories about the winter I learned to ski.

Hopefully it’s not the last thing I’m bad at. I can always use another lesson in humility. I don’t know if I’ll ever be audacious enough to try skydiving, but I’ll wager I’d be bad at that, too. Who knows what I’d learn?

Reach Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl at

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