Beating around the bush
Learning to separate success from self-worth
Freya Wasteneys // Columnist
Call me deluded, but I’ve never been particularly good at estimating my abilities. I tend to discount the skills I already possess as easy, and assume I’ll instantly pick up skills I lack. Then, when I don’t immediately succeed, I feel discouraged and believe I’ve failed forever. I’m either too hard on myself, or not hard enough, and it can be hard to find a balance. In other words: I’m competitive, and I over-think things.
Over the years, I have had to train myself to understand that not everything hinges on my existing capacities. I’ve realized that sometimes the best way to learn is to hurl yourself into a situation, and figure it out as you go along. Getting thrown into a new job is a perfect example of this, since it is often disorienting at first, but provides an opportunity to progress through experiential learning and mentorship.
The first time I comprehended this was the winter after I graduated high school, when I was asked to be an instructor for Mount Washington’s cross-country ski school. I didn’t have any coaching certifications, but my parents had strapped me skis from the moment I could walk. I had been a competitive racer for half of my life, and the ski club was desperate for instructors. I knew how to ski. How hard could it be to teach children the basics? In a classic case of overconfidence, I assumed teaching would be easy.
For my first lesson, I had planned a “fun relay race,” but things unravelled quickly, as I realized that I had to teach the kids to fall down and stand up on their skis first. My original plan was forgotten. Turns out, the things that are most intuitive to us, are not always simple to teach, and what I had deemed easy, was actually quite hard for beginners.
Back to the basics. A quick refresher, right? I assumed “the basics” would take five minutes tops, but predictably, I was wrong. We spent an hour falling down, untangling skis and struggling to get back up again – it was a muddle of ski equipment and appendages. We didn’t leave the flat area where we had started, and I was surprised by how difficult it was to teach something that I had always assumed was instinctive.
After my first few lessons, we had spent more time lying in the snow than standing on our skis, and I felt like giving up. Fortunately, I wasn’t given the chance to quit, since I had people depending on me. Instead, I had to take a step back, adjust my strategies, let go of my ego and focus my energy on making skiing fun for the students. I had started planning my students eventual racing careers before their skis hit the snow, so I readjusted my goals: have fun, and see improvement, however small.
Reframing my goals helped take some of the pressure off, which allowed me to escape the blinding panic tunnel and observe what other instructors were doing. Once I had separated my self-worth from my success-rate, I gave myself space to learn alongside the students, and actually enjoyed the process. While not every work environment is quite so forgiving, I’ve realized that similar concepts apply regardless of the job. Many of us get caught up in overthinking the learning process and get in our own way. As a result, we don’t put ourselves in positions to succeed. Recognizing that we all need to start somewhere can give us the confidence to pursue jobs that we might not be 100 per cent ready for, and opening ourselves to mentorship can present valuable learning opportunities.
I’ve kept my students hand-drawn thank you cards to remind myself of that.