The Fear Factor: Five Ways Learning To Ski (Or To Improvise) Can Transform Your Mindset
When making a list of things I want to do before dying, I never gave a single thought to include skiing, because skiing was always on the top of any list of things I thought I might die while doing. I have always considered skiing an unnatural act, partly due to my lifelong fear of heights and fundamental respect for the forces of gravity. The long ride up a mountain on a ski lift always appeared to be a prolonged anxiety attack quickly followed by a barely-controlled downward glide at speeds no human should move without a parachute. I hate having things on my feet that make me move faster than a race-walk. This includes skates of all kinds and rollerblades in particular. My 9-year old niece once convinced me to try rollerblading with her but after a half hour I said I’d had enough, that I was exhausted and bruised from banging into everything. She said I might like it better if I went outside. So no one was more surprised than I when, years later, I found myself enrolled in ski school at Vail Mountain, dropped off at insane o’clock in the morning by my boyfriend — now-husband — on his way to do some real skiing. There were several fairly sound reasons I said “yes” to this, the first of which was waking to a view of the Rocky mountains for an entire week, with shopping in Vail coming in a close second. Ski school was a compromise, an attempt to meet my guy halfway on a passion we clearly do not share and to challenge myself (on his dime, part of the compromise). As a student of improvisation, the parallels between learning to ski and to improvise sparked my imagination immediately.
- Fear is overcome through development of skills (that are the only way to avoid injury or death) In improvisation the injury is psychological and the death metaphorical, thank goodness, but the risk is of both is real.
2. Both skiing and improvisation redefine the meaning of struggle. When skiing, the use of new muscles in a new way is necessary to avoid screaming down the slope at a death-defying speed or slamming into a perfectly innocent person, and this is a lot to deal with all at once. When improvising, we are more exposed than we might like, using new psychological “muscles” of attentive listening and interacting with neither script nor certainty. Both involve struggle and that is not a bad thing. It is the process of struggling to use recently-acquired information or skills in an intense situation that develops new neural connections in abundance. And those neural networks are the neurobiological equivalent of Google maps giving us numerous different routings to the same destination while adapting for traffic.
3. To ski and to improvise requires letting go of control over anything but our own choices. But the more skills we develop, the more choices we have. There is no limit to the degree of skills and strengths we can dedicate to the goal of surviving the slippery slope or the improvised scene.
4. Both skiing and improvising are most successful when we think about nothing but the present moment. When skiing the focus has to be responding to the trail and its shifting conditions. In improvisation we focus on responding to our partners. The slightest tilt toward self-consciousness, second-guessing or judgment leads to a fall. Or a fail. So needless to say, there are always plenty of falls, fails, and flails, because most of us are much more practiced at judging, predicting and self-criticizing than the allowing a moment to unfold.
5. Shifting one’s mindset is the key to staying with something new and challenging long enough to grow a skill set that can take us further down an unfamiliar path. When Albert Einstein, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, said “One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts,” he might as well have been talking about me flailing and floundering down the bunny hill or any human being trying to shift into a “growth” mindset. The trick is to stretch one’s abilities enough that the only “solid ground” upon which to feel secure is the inner strength to persevere and the belief that it is possible to learn this crazy new thing. The “growth” mindset is experienced in real time when we jump into the discomfort of doing something unfamiliar with the support of others, and we do not even have to know these others well.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together,” according to Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight and researcher in the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, making just the experience of improvisation forge social bonds through the integration of shared risk and creative interaction. My fellow ski school students became a support group who reminded me to approach things I know I will not be good at the same way a kid does, with a judgment-free openness to the fun of trying. They reminded me of this with their good will and encouragement, and also with the fact that they were, to a person, actual kids. I was the only ski school student with a masters degree and who graduated from middle school.
While skiing never caught on for me, those afternoons on the side of a mountain were more than just struggling through anxiety and aching muscles. It became clear to me that even when I am not naturally drawn to an activity and have no talent for it, it is still possible to learn it. And that what is learned when facing down one fear is transferable to other challenges. This is what the research about the “growth” mindset is about. When deeply involved with stretching our abilities, facing uncertainty and focusing on the skills that move us forward toward a desired goal rather than a predetermined outcome, something shifts in our thinking and emotions. Applied Improvisation games and exercises are another way into this shift toward engaging the brain’s instinctive learning state, something we can continue to expand personally and professionally for as long as we are alive.