How to Be a Beginner (and Get Over Your Ego)
It takes skill to have no idea what you're doing outdoors
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“I love that you work at Outside but aren’t, you know, Outside-y,” an acquaintance who shall not be named told me earlier this year. I get variations of this comment a lot. I live and work among people who’ve been on ski patrol, undertaken weeks-long backpacking trips, and handled Class V rapids without any help. I have done none of those things, but recently, I was nearly killed by a ski lift (my backpack got stuck, and the emergency-stop bar malfunctioned—not my fault!). I also barfed in a lift line (motion sickness—driving and skiing’s fault!) and cried on a ridge because I was too paralyzed by fear to ski off a cornice (my fault, from all angles!). And skiing is only one of the sports I started learning at age 22 when I moved to New Mexico to work for this magazine.
In the five years since, I’ve also learned how to climb, backpack, and trail run without hurting myself, and I’ve taken some baby steps in biking and paddling. To me these sports are fine arts, each with their own special world of gear, rules, and lingo. Relatedly, they are also crash courses in trying to gracefully feel stupid in front of other people.
The outdoorsy types in my life have been kind to me as I’ve learned the ropes, but it does bother me a little when I mess up or can’t hang or otherwise demonstrate that I am not one of them. When people talk about being outdoorsy, there’s a lot to unpack. Everyone sits somewhere on the active spectrum and has their own reasons for being there, with personal preferences and socioeconomic and health-related considerations all wrapped up in it. But what I’ve learned from my own experience is that it takes finesse to be a good beginner in the land of hardcore athletes.
When people talk about being outdoorsy, there’s a lot to unpack.
It turns out that at Outside, saying you ran cross-country pretty well in high school is like sharing your SAT score any time after graduating high school: irrelevant enough to get an awkward look. I’ve spent most of my time at this magazine forensically picking apart all the reasons I didn’t arrive here a skilled outdoorswoman. For one thing, give me a break, I grew up in Florida. This is an imperfect but decent excuse for not knowing anything about mountains and the activities you can do on one. Florida made me appreciate nature, but in a slow and aimless manner, like floating on my back in the ocean for as long as I wanted or watching a lizard die on a muggy day after my dog sliced its throat open by accident. I was the only unathletic one of three siblings growing up, with not enough hand-eye coordination for even kindergarten ballet. But I was bookish! And you know those kids who devour Into Thin Air and pluckily find their way onto a mountaineering expedition later in life? Also not me!
Still, by the end of college, when I got my job at Outside, I certainly had the most outdoor cred of my family: I liked running and had gone on quite a few camping trips (with borrowed gear). I love hearing how my friends’ early exposure to the outdoors built the foundation for their current, supercool adventure lifestyles: maybe they scaled a grand peak as they were toted in a BabyBjörn or took on a blue-square ski run while attached to their parent with a cute little leash. But adventure sports are not an inherited skill for me. My mom and dad grew up in Chicago and Saint Louis, respectively, where rock climbing and skiing were not really a thing. My dad also has a chronic health condition and started losing the use of his legs when I was six. We just were not the family that did big hikes together. I had a wonderful childhood, but I’ve found that family members induct many people into favorite sports early—it helps to start before you can even walk, right?
Are you exhausted listening to my excuses for not doing sports? I am, too. It’s mostly a coping mechanism. I’d rather believe that all the accomplished outdoorspeople just had some lifelong advantage over me, so I don’t have to take responsibility for the many times I wasn’t resourceful enough to do cooler things outdoors. I brace for impact when I ask good skiers how long they’ve been at it, because what if they also didn’t learn to ski before 23 but simply picked it up faster?
This may come as a shock, but I have not yet picked up a sport quickly. I always start in “just happy to be here” mode, like a lil’ golden retriever on skis, desperate for instruction, encouragement, and snacks. I expect nothing, I’m here to have fun! As I get more confident, it becomes kind of insidious, because now I expect myself to keep up and will absolutely hurt my own feelings if I don’t. Someone once asked if I’d be OK on a bumpy blue run, and I almost cried into my goggles: Do I look like a beginner? (It took me a while to get down the bumpy blue run, fine.) It’s not really about competitiveness; it just seems like if you love doing something and do it enough times, you get to go faster or achieve harder things. This is how progress and goals work, no?
I try to remind myself that learning to hang on to a wall or zooming down a mountain for the first time in my twenties is something to savor, not a personal failure.
Being a beginner has revealed this key flaw in my thinking: I both desire and assume a linear relationship between loving a sport and getting good enough at it to fit in. Not to mention that sports like skiing and climbing presented me with activities where everyone looked cool just by doing it well. I want to look cool! Not attaining that has sometimes brought out the ugly side of my ego. I get bored with being the slowest and the least impressive—I still have fun, but it’d be more fun if people paid attention to me.
Instead of beating myself up, I’m trying to get to know myself and be a little more encouraging. I’m learning the distinction between self-deprecation (much easier than showing people how badly I want to get better) and productive levity. Once, staring down a tree-filled run and knowing I’d need to whip out some knee-destroying pizzas, I just renamed it the Florida Snowplow, which helped me commit to each turn. I’m trying to treat my personal history of the outdoors with affection—it’s part of the reason I can’t mountain bike or navigate for shit, but it’s also why I have an appreciation for reptiles and bugs that really enhances nature outings. And I try to remind myself that learning to hang on to a wall or zooming down a mountain for the first time in my twenties is something to savor, not a personal failure.
One of the best parts of all this is that forcing others to hang out with you to teach you is not just encouraged but pretty necessary. The thing about knowing lots of hardcore athletes is that the really skilled people are usually the ones who most want to help beginners love that sport. I have a theory that the progression of ego is shaped like a plateau: it rises with skill at first, peaks at the intermediate stage, and then starts descending as you get better, so much better that your accomplishments precede you or just speak for themselves. Or maybe, it’s dawned on me, skilled athletes are so generous to beginners like me because they’re obsessed with their sport—they want to do it all the time and pass along their obsession just because they love it so much. On bad days and beginner-to-intermediate-angst days, I try to be more like those people.