Amnesia for the Pain of Mistakes

Yesterday, I sat at the end of the lake waiting for the water to settle down before my next ski pass. When I said, “hit it,” I had the same moment of joy I’ve had at least 500 times since early April. Every single time I say “hit it”, I feel a moment of elation right after I get up on the ski. It’s been years since I failed to get up on my slalom ski. By now, you would think I could treat getting up as a given. Yet here I am, marveling at the fact that I’m UP, even though I’ve done it thousands and thousands of times.

Perhaps it’s because I have a front row seat to watching new skiers come to Mystic Waters to learn to ski with Austin Abel. Before there is success, there are a lot of falls. Perhaps it’s because I can still remember the frustration and fear of suddenly having the rope start pulling me through the frothy water as I tried to orient my body and my ski to glide across the water.

Before the success, there is chaos. Every time. I’ve just learned to live with it. Sometimes.

It’s easy to forget the journey that got me here. When we first moved to Lake Lure, I didn’t slalom ski much at all. Once or twice a year, we got the boat out and I would strap on my husband’s old tournament ski. I usually got up – but not every time. Once we got going, we had to contend with logs in the lake, other boaters, fisherman and one time, even had a fishing lure cast into our boat. It felt like the wild west out there.

It was years before I could cross the wake. The possibility of running the ski course was so far out of reach, I might as well have aspired to fly to the moon on a hang glider. Just figuring out how to put in a ski course to try was a major project. Once I did start running the course (after dozens of trips to various ski schools), I wondered if I would ever be able to speed up the boat or shorten the rope.

Yet on this day, I did run a shorter rope on a faster speed. Lynn of 15 years ago could not have imagined me doing what I did yesterday.

Progress is so easy to take for granted. The mistakes that got me here are so easy to forget – especially when they are in the rearview mirror.

Mistakes in the past are one thing. Mistakes in the here and how are even more difficult to accept.

When I was learning to row in the sculling boat that Russ got me for my birthday three years ago, I made every mistake possible. Launching the boat by myself the first time, I had the blades facing backwards, which dunked me in the lake very quickly. I climbed the 128 steps back to my house, soaking wet and disillusioned, wondering if I would ever be able to row my boat.

Next time, I put the oars in the wrong way. There are a lot of ways to get it wrong. There’s only one way to put the oars in that actually works. My way didn’t work, so I struggled to get that smooth, even stroke I had experienced briefly last time out. Being a complete rookie, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I thought I just forgot how to do it. Fortunately, Russ came out on the pontoon boat, took one look and said I had it all wrong. Well, “no shit Sherlock!” I said. He showed me how fix my dilemma. When I finally did get the oars in correctly and started rowing down the lake, I could not for the life of me row in a straight line. After I finally learned to row more than a few strokes in a row, my hands paid a heavy price with blisters. Who knew you needed gloves? Don’t even ask me about backing the boat back into the launch.

I watched the other rowers going down the lake, making it look so easy. All I saw was successful rowing. I had no way of knowing how many times they had gotten dunked into the water, how many blisters they had broken, or seeing all the mistakes they had made on their way to those beautiful strokes.

We don’t wear our respective journeys on our sleeves. Even when we share our journey, there is no way to truly share the inner landscape that occurs when we are making mistakes on the way to learning something new. Or improving on something we already know how to do. In fact, it can be even worse when we are improving on something we already know how to do.

The moments that count are between us and our minds.

If we are to get better at anything, we have to make mistakes and how we think about them matters deeply.

If we forget that mistakes are an essential part of learning, our minds play tricks to get us to avoid them. We beat ourselves up over making them. We focus on the goal and forget to break it down to the pieces that lead to the goal. We let our amnesia get the better of us.

If we remember that mistakes are essential, we welcome them. We coax our mind to pivot off the feeling of failure and turn into the feeling of excitement when we finally solve the problem.  We allow ourselves to be satisfied for a job well done.

During my time learning to row my sculling boat, I was on an accelerated learning curve around how I viewed mistakes. I allowed myself (mostly) the grace to stick with the discomfort and keep breaking it down to manageable steps.

I kept coming back.

Eventually, mistake piled upon mistake, until one day, I could launch the boat, stay IN the boat, row in a straight line and park the boat without incident - blister free.

When I get my sculling boat out, as I did this morning, it’s so easy to forget what it took to get me here. Yet the next time I take on something new, I will need to remember: The mistakes ARE the path.

What difficulties have you forgotten on your journey? What skills and wisdom are you taking for granted? Where do you want to learn something new? How will you remember that mistakes are essential?