Dr. Marry and Me,  Personal Writing

Lessons from cross country skiing

Dr Marry and I have taken up cross country skiing. When we canceled our trip to New York City the week before Christmas, we decided to purchase used equipment and give it a go. We’re not generally very outdoorsy, but we do like to walk and bike around town, so we hoped this might also stick. And what do you know? It did! Turns out, we actually really enjoy it, which should help to make winter a whole lot more fun.

In fact, just today, as we were coming off the trail, Dr Marry said, “Are you prepared to be sad when winter is done because of cross country skiing?”

I don’t enjoy it that much.

While I was on the course today, I had some thoughts, which were, in part, inspired by my colleague Marie Incontrera’s TEDx talk that I watched earlier this morning.

If there are lessons to take from jazz musicians, then surely there must also be lessons to take from my early days as a cross country skier, right?

Lean on those who have gone before you

If it’s true that there’s absolutely nothing new under the sun, then you can be freed from feeling like you must create content, an idea or product that has never before been seen or thought of by anyone. It’s not about doing something utterly unique; it’s about looking at the landscape of your chosen field and adapting existing ideas from your particular perspective or with your lived experience.

The very first time we went cross country skiing, we found a trail that had not yet been groomed. In other words, there were no tracks already forged into the snow for us to place our skis in for guidance, like bumpers on a bowling lane. It’s much harder to break the snow and free ski because your skis glide all over the slippery snow. We were venturing into completely uncharted territory, and that felt scary and out of control.

Use the existing tracks—you’re still having your own skiing experience and creating your own journey, but others have helped to pave the way.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the crowd

Sometimes there are all kinds of people and products in your field. It might feel awfully crowded. Take the time you need to determine where you best fit in the landscape. Again, feel free to borrow (appropriately and with credit) from others, but be sure you are making your own contribution to the conversation.

Sometimes there are lots of sets of tracks; they can be for two lane skiing or side by side skiing. It can be hard to know which ones you should choose, which ones are “the best.” Don’t get bogged down in that; just pick a pair of tracks and get going. If you need to switch to another set while you’re on the course, that’s a relatively easy thing to do. Let others pass you, say hello and watch how they are moving along the trail. You might learn something from them, and at the very least, you’ll have a momentary exchange with a kindred spirit.

Look back once in awhile to see where you’ve been

Being self employed or an entrepreneur is no easy task. You have a million balls to juggle at any given moment, and keeping track of the present is hard enough without trying to anticipate the future or reflect on the past. But there’s real value in working towards a goal for the future; there might be even more value in looking back to see where you’ve been. Reviewing the path you’ve taken can inspire pride in all you’ve accomplished, compel you to keep going and invite you to reflect on the lessons you’ve learned so far.

It’s easy to put your head down and ski without stopping to look up, around or behind you. After all, while it’s not downhill skiing, it’s still relatively easy to fall on cross country skis. That seems most likely to happen to me when I relax and think “I’ve got this.” If I keep swishing ahead and casually turn my head to talk to Dr Marry, I inevitably fall down. But when I stop and give myself a safe way to look back, I get the benefit of seeing where I’ve been and realizing how far I’ve skied. I feel proud of myself every single time I do this, and if I don’t fall down, that’s a real bonus.

Don’t let your inner critic win

We all have it: our shadowed self that says some version of, “You can’t do this. Who do you even think you are to try?” If we give it space, we see it actually grow into a stretched out version of ourselves that walks beside us, taunting us with every step we take going forward. It’s a grotesque version of who we are, and its only goal is to diminish us, keep us small and stop us from pursuing our little spark, the reason we’re here on Earth.

Depending on where the sun is, our shadows can become so large that they are distracting on the trail. If we fixate on them, it’s easy to think, “I look terrible while I ski. I’m a really bad skier. I should stop doing this.” Even though we intellectually understand that our shadows are not a mirror image of us, it’s easy to get caught up in the negativity of what they look like and make us question if we should be out enjoying the day, the snow, the exercise, nature and more.

Note that you need the correct environment to be successful

As a start up or an entrepreneur, you don’t need to have all the latest and greatest gadgets, tools, equipment and programs, but you can’t be successful if you’re starting out without the bare minimum of what you need to be in the arena. You have to have a working website, but it doesn’t need to take payments. You have to have enough product to get it out to your early adopters, but you don’t need to contract with an overseas company to make stock you don’t need yet.

Our equipment is not all new: my skis and poles are 30 years old, and my boots are new. I don’t need a top of the line kit right now. We made a minimal investment to get started and we’ll expand as we continue to enjoy the sport. There’s a tremendous amount of snow in our area this winter, and that makes for easy access to cross country skiing regardless the age of the equipment. But the very best, most expensive kit won’t work if you start on concrete.

Don’t get lost in the forest, pay attention to the trees

Sometimes the path you thought was smooth sailing goes awry—a bit or a lot. Sometimes it falls completely apart. It’s in those moments that you need to know your why. Why are you venturing out on your own? Trying to start a new business? Working to leave what is certain behind and move into the great unknown? And then you have to simply put one foot in front of the other and trust that the uncertainty won’t last for very long and that you can weather it.

There are places along the trail that look like this. One minute, you are skiing on two, pristine little tracks, gliding along and feeling like an Olympian. Then out of the blue, the trail looks like a toddler scribbled all over it. What happened? Where are you supposed to go? Take a moment to assess and then carefully put one ski in front of the other and trust that your equipment will carry you through until the trail is righted again.

Find a companion for the journey

The life of working from home as an entrepreneur can be lonely. Who do you share your wins with? Who will hear your fears and be there to support you through them? There’s something lovely about the water cooler moments that come with having colleagues. COVID has taught us all to place a different value on our work connections. But COVID has also taught us that it’s easier than ever to create a virtual network of supportive people. Mentoring, idea generation, brainstorming, decision making and more can be done with folks from all over the world today, so find your group of people who are there for you, in both the good and the bad. Just because you have a payroll of one or no payroll at all…yet, doesn’t mean you have to walk the path alone. Reach out and create the network you need and want. It’s much more fun to have someone there with you, and it’s easier to get out of the doldrums with someone who will cheerlead you on.

We see all kinds of people cross country skiing by themselves, and with Dr Marry going back to his teaching schedule this upcoming week, I might try it, too. But I really love doing this activity with him. I appreciate that he’s there to enjoy the experience with me, to help me get back up if I fall and to encourage me to keep going when I feel like taking my skis off and walking.

So I burned some calories, thoroughly enjoyed the hour we spent on the trail AND came up with all these lessons. All in all, that’s a pretty lovely way to spend an hour. What lessons can you take from the activities you are enjoying these days? I’d love to hear about them, and I know others would, too.

Dayna Del Val is on a mission to help others (re)discover the spark they were born with through her blog and newsletter, her professional talks and the (re)Discover Your Spark retreats she leads. Dayna works with people to help them not just identify and articulate their dreams but to develop a framework to get going on the pursuit of those dreams—today, in the next few months and for the years ahead. She's at the intersection of remarkable and so, so ordinary, but she knows that pretty much everyone else is, too. She's excited to be sharing this extraordinary journey with you.

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