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We all start somewhere

As an outdoor guide and teacher for the past decade my students often hear me say, “we all start somewhere”.  It may get sound cliche, but it’s an authentic and valuable personal motto of my own when taking someone (including myself) out into a new environment for the first time.  

I still vividly remember my first avalanche course.  It wasn’t the teacher’s brilliant wisdom or the unique snowpack in the Bridgers of Montana that we were exploring that stuck with me but rather it was embarrassment surrounding my equipment and the constantly slipping skins due to the ridiculously cold temperatures we were dealing with.  I was consumed with embarrassment, in the back of the group and supposed to have all of this figured out already. I kept playing the guilt on repeat throughout the course when in reality I was still actively learning a new skill and it was ok.  

It’s important to have our beginner’s mind present in the classroom whether it’s someone struggling with a frozen binding on a splitboard, putting skins on backwards or another who forgot to bring enough food or warm clothes; we all start somewhere.  Whatever the case, we’re supposed to have this all figured out but despite our dozen attempts to practice with our gear or whatever the case may be, there are still the “first times” that will inevitably strike when we least expect them.

Learning a new skill is tough on our brains which I believe is also why it’s uncomfortable and not an easy position to be in.  It’s a lot of work to learn something new whether it’s a new language or skill and because of this there is a commonly documented process that we can look to for guidance when learning and integrating a new skill.  The diagram below illustrates this process and it’s an important thing to keep in mind and will hopefully bring compassion to your next “new” situation as we stumble our way through the learning curve.

Understanding the flow of learning a new skill can bring more ease and grace to the process.

To better explain:

No matter your skill set we all have that awkward bumbling phase of first learning something new. In this framework it’s referred to as unconscious incompetence or the stage when you don’t know what you don’t know and it’s awkward.  It’s the first day on a snowboard after a life in the tropics or your first time touring in the backcountry after a life at the ski resort. 

The next phase that we can quickly (or not so quickly) progress to given the circumstances, is conscious incompetence.  This is when we are well aware of what we don’t know and it’s even more awkward.  This was me in my first avalanche course stumbling around with my skins or when you realize for the first time that skiing in jeans is really not that effective after years of rocking them.  

After many hours of practicing a skill and integrating these skills into our physical body and brain we can move forward into conscious competence.  This is a new confident skier skiing a blue run or an expert skiing on a really steep slope.  It’s a situation where you know you have the skills to complete the task but you need to stay focused throughout the activity.  In this stage you don’t take anything for granted.  

Once we spend time in the conscious competence stage gaining hours and experience it’s possible to move into the unconscious competence.  Here we no longer need to think about what we’re doing to be successful.  Using a really common example, this is where most of us are as drivers. Behind the wheel we have the built in ability to react without necessarily thinking about it. It is only after years and years of practice do we succeed into this stage of integrated skill and it’s important to keep in mind that we can quickly jump into earlier stages of development if a new situation presents itself like black ice or a car quickly approaching us head on in our lane.  Given your unique skill set, an outlier experience such as these can quickly set you back to thinking again about what you response should be.

If you are to remember one thing about the learning curve, I hope it’s this: we all start somewhere and it’s important to recognize where you are in the development of integrating a new skill.  Above all it’s important to have patience for yourself and others no matter where you lie on this continuum and all the while make sure you are having fun and embracing the awkwardness.