Monday, 5 February 2018

Pick your battles. And don't be afraid to win them.

When it comes to skiing, it isn't going fast that's hard. It's going slow. And stopping. Do it for a few hours, after a couple of years without, and your muscles will soon tell you so. Any fool can point skis straight downhill and go fast, but if that fool doesn't know how to turn and stop, the result is unlikely to be conducive to the fool's good health.

That makes skiing quite a metaphor for life.

Don't you get slightly tired of those life-affirming principles that motivational courses delight in? You know, the suggestion that if you just put enough into it, you can achieve anything. Whenever I go into the centre of the town where I live, Luton, I'm greeted but a huge sign proclaiming that if I can dream it, I can do it.
Ah, yes. Motivational thinking. Inspirational.
But somewhat lacking in contact with reality...
Well, frankly I've had dreams which it fills me with horror to think I might some day have to live out. Equally I've had dreams which might well get me into serious trouble if I were try to realise them. It may just be me, but I find dreams a poor guide to life.

Still, that's clearly not what those well-meant exhortations mean. They're not asking us to fly under our own power because we dream it. They know we can't all score the winning goal in a World Cup Final. They realise that being an internationally acclaimed movie star requires a lot of talent and a lot of luck and not just a lot of ambition.

What they mean is that we shouldn't be held back from reaching for the apparently unattainable just because we fear to try. Take what happened to me on the first morning of my current skiing holiday.

One of the least pleasant ways of getting up to the top of a ski slope is what we English call a ski-lift, but the French call a téléski or far more earthily a "tire-fesse" which we could possibly translate as a "bum-tugger". You stick a pole between your legs (now, now, keep your thoughts clean) and perch precariously on a round disk at the end. The pole, attached to a cable overhead, then drags you, on your skis, up the hill.

The first time I came across one of these infernal contraptions I came off it three times in three attempts, before finally giving up and taking a a different route back to the resort. The experience left traces in my injured subconscious that are far from plesant. Traumatic, almost.

So when I was confronted with one of these bum-tuggers, with signs at the entrance warning that it was unusually long and included stretches with a gradient of over 50%, all my nerves started jangling.

"Impossible, impossible," they were crying to me, "don't even attempt it. Certainly not on your first day. Perhaps not even on your last."

To decide a thing is impossible is to make it so. And the view from the top of the ski-lift was, I'm told, exceptional. Besides, there was no other way out. It was time for my mind to take control of my instincts.

"We've done this kind of thing dozens of times," it soothingly told my nerves, "and we've coped with steep slopes and long runs. If this is a bit longer and a little steeper than some, well, it'll just be a little more of what we've confronted many times before. Not as comfortable as a chairlift but perfectly achievable."

And so it proved to be. Far easier than the threatening picture my instincts painted. Indeed, my sister-out-law, who was my guide on this outing, somehow kept leading me back to the same place, so in the end we took the same ski lift four or five times. By the end, my nerves were completely reconciled to the experience. I'd go so far as to say they were blasé about it.

Which is the other danger. Get too familiar with a hazard and you stop seeing it as hazardous. You get too casual and then things go wrong.

Never take a long, steep ski lift ride casually. Never stop focusing on the task. Never, for example, be so irresponsible as to fish a phone out of your pocket with one hand while holding the pole with the other, so you can take photos of the experience.
Bum-tugger at work:
you sit on a pole and get dragged along on skis
Now it feels to me that, whatever the would-be motivators might say, this is all applicable in life.

You shouldn't be put off doing something because you're afraid of failing. Why, you might well fail, but as long as you take the trouble to learn from the failure, you greatly increase your chance of success at the next attempt. Above all, if they only thing that's stopping you trying something worth doing is your fear, then confront that fear and overcome it.

On the other hand, understand your real limitations. You're never going to fly under your own power. Don't set your heart on doing it: the only certainty of trying is that you'll be disappointed, and there's every chance of serious injury too.

Any fool can rush in try to bulldoze their way to success. The result is the Trump presidency with its litany of failures. Indeed, it's the deluded aspirations of those who voted for a Trump presidency and whose only legacy will be disappointment. Like those who voted for Brexit and set up themselves up to fail.

No. You need to pick your battles. I'll never be a champion skier. But I can get to the top of a ski slope reached by a bum-tugger. The view was excellent and the fine, long run down marvellous.

Overcoming a little angst was a price well worth paying.

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