Failing, Learning, Teaching: The Cycle of Growth

“Put your weight on your right foot!” my date yelled.

I was teetering on a windsurfing board, trying to make it turn. I may as well have been trying to turn the Titanic.

“I AM!” I wailed, as the board continued straight ahead.

My date yelled louder. “Put your weight on your right foot!”

He repeated that a few more times, his voice fading in the distance as I picked up speed toward the far shore of the Potomac. Finally, I put my left foot clear in the air to prove, once and for, all that my weight WAS on my right foot. The board kept going straight.

Lousy teaching? Lousy learning? Maybe both: I have an astounding lack of talent when  it comes to standing on moving boards (skateboards, snowboards, surfboards; it doesn’t matter which).

The point is not whether I ever learned to windsurf (I did not) nor whether my date was or wasn’t a good teacher. (He was not.) And forget about the relationship. What I’m pondering is the importance of experiencing failure as we journey through life.

When we’re young, we spend most of our time learning, and a lot of that time is spent failing. We try to walk a hundred times before we toddle across the room to mommy or daddy. We sing the alphabet song a thousand timers wrong before we sing it right. But as time goes on, that balance changes. As adults, days may go by when we don’t step outside our comfort zone. We may not fail at something for weeks.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, not only when I’m learning, but also when I’m teaching.
Most of us, when we teach, are sharing our knowledge of something we are good at. We forget what it’s like to not know how to step on a windsurfer and shift three mysterious hidden muscles somewhere in our core, and have the board turn.

Failure reminds us.

A few months ago, I decided to try to sing a song in semi-public after weeks of practicing to an audience of my cats. I must have rehearsed the song 500 times.

The venue was a a small musicale with a small group who met a key requirements: they are astonishingly non-critical, willing to find something to praise in even the most earsplittingly bad performance. As I started, my voice wobbled in an unsettling way, then I fell off pitch — kind of like the sound a train makes as it moves, unstoppably, away from you. And I forgot the words. “I did this better at home,” I wanted to mutter — which is exactly what my students tell me day in and day out.

There is knowing what a student is going through. And then there is KNOWING. As I slunk off the make-shift stage, I KNEW what it felt like for an insecure beginner to get it (sort of kind of) right at home, then fall apart on stage. My days of being a beginning piano player are long behind me, but my days of being a beginning singer are painfully present.

When my students complain “it’s HAAAAAARD!” what are they really telling me? It might be that they don’t understand what I’ve asked them to do. Or that they haven’t yet developed the skills to break a task into manageable pieces. Maybe they don’t yet know how to make intuitive adjustments until some secret neural pathway figures out how to put it all together. Or they may not enjoy tussling outside of their comfort zone.

Failing is a route to understanding the learning process. My inability to balance on a surf board while putting weigh on one foot and trying to change direction is not all that different from a student’s inability to relax the wrist, support the bridge of the hand, and turn one finger under the other while moving to a different place on the keyboard. In recent months, I’ve tried to rock climb, ski moguls, sing into a microphone, build a better website, speak Italian, and play the bass.

Each time, my success, or lack of it, has taught me something about teaching, even if it’s only to remind me, once again of this:

The most important part of being a teacher is creating a space where it is okay to fail.

Right now, I’m taking an art class. We’re supposed to draw things — so far, I’ve tried lots of vases and flowers, some seashells, a few faces, a cow bone, a gourd, a seed pod, and a skull.  My first skull looked like a wax model that had melted in the heat.

Alas poor Yorick... your portrait is being done by a student.
Alas poor Yorick… your portrait is being done by a student.

The seed pod presented a whole universe of challenges: its delicacy and translucence, the shadows, the lights and darks, the edges, the angles and dimensions. I didn’t get it right; I may not have even gotten it recognizable (I’ve stared at it so long I can’t tell any more). “This is hard!” I found myself saying as I started a third attempt to make the seed pod three-dimensional.

Such a little thing, so many problems....
Such a little thing, so many problems….


But I was laughing as I said it. Maybe this is the lesson you learn about learning when you fail: Hard is good. Failing is on the road to succeeding. And the whole process means there are whole new worlds ahead to explore — one wobbly attempt at a time.


The Low-Carb Weight-Loss and Paragliding Adventure

The e-mail was short and to the point: “Would you prefer to go jet skiing or paragliding?”

It’s one of the perks of travel writing: At conferences and such, we often get invited to participate in fun activities — anything from ice climbing to hot-air ballooning. The reason:  Hosts hope that we’ll be able to cover their activities in the articles we write about a destination.

I sent back an immediate reply: Paragliding, of course.

I mean, soaring over Switzerland and the Alps…  How was that even a question?

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At 3 a.m. the next morning, I awoke with a start. I’d be flying thousands of feet in the sky. Dancing with gravity. Hanging from a giant kite.

Physics is a fact. Physics has laws.

Surely, there would be a weight limit?

And yes, this could be an issue. A similarly proportioned woman of average height would have no problem with the weight limit, but I am tall. I have a large frame. And even when I’m in good shape, I constantly hang out at the high end of those height-weight charts This had not been a “good shape” year. In fact, my go-to strategy for dealing with bad news being avoidance and denial. I hadn’t stepped on a scale in the last 10 months.

I could think of nothing — NOTHING — more embarrassing than being forced to stand on a scale in front of all my travel writing colleagues — me, Ms Adventure Travel Writer — and being told I was too fat to fly.

Long story short: I checked the weight limits, and yes, the paragliding companies all  had them. Then I checked my weight.

The first number was lower than I’d hoped, The second number was higher than I’d feared — 17 pounds above the weight limit, and that was buck-naked before breakfast. If I wanted to account for clothes, shoes, a cup of coffee, and the fact that I’d be in Prague on a food tour the week before paragliding, I’d need a safety margin of another 10 pounds.  Which meant losing 27 pounds. In 7 weeks.

While I like a challenge as well as the next adventure traveler, this was one I could do without. Indeed, I wasn’t sure it was even possible.

I dithered. Maybe I should give up the idea gracefully and  just go jet-skiing? I pictured all my adventure-loving colleague heading to the sky while I stayed below trying to look cheerful about my “choice.” It was just too pathetic.

On-line research told me that people often lost a lot of weight quickly on a low-carb diet. I was dubious, but I also really really really wanted to paraglide.

Long story short:..   I followed the plan I chose almost to the letter — meat, fish, fat, eggs, cheese, salad veggies. After two weeks, I’d lost 13 pounds.  After another four weeks, on the morning of my flight to Europe, I weighed exactly 27 pounds less than when I’d started.

Now I just had to keep it off for the week I’d be spending in Prague, a city known for dumplings, desserts, and hundreds of kinds of beer. Travel is at least in part about cuisine, and I’ve always been glad I wasn’t one of those travel writers with complicated dietary restrictions. Now I was (although I’m hoping I can do it quietly, so no one will be inconvenienced by it.).

For the Prague food tour I decided to eat my strudel and have it too:  I figured my 10-pound buffer would allow me to sample a few carbs — so in addition to apple strudel (my favorite desert in the world).

Apple strudel,. Yes, I cheated. No, I'm not sorry.
Apple strudel,. Yes, I cheated. No, I’m not sorry.

I sampled Czech knedlicky (dumplings), poppyseed kolaczki, (cookies), and of course, a couple of locally brewed pivo (beer). But mostly, I skipped the carbs; carried some sausage, cheese, Brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds around for snacks on the fly; and stayed on plan  — leading one concerned waiter to inform me that my meal would not be “complete” if I didn’t add dumplings or potatoes.

When I arrived in Switzerland, I skipped breakfast before going to the paragliding office — I didn’t want the weight of breakfast to tip me over the limit.

As it turned out, there was no weigh-in: The weight limits are written on paper, but not in stone. One variable is the customer’s perceived fitness (you have to be capable of running or jogging to pull the kite up and get airborne). Conditions like air pressure and winds factor in: Weight limits are lower in winter and  when winds are quiet; higher in the summer and when winds are gustier.

No one looked at me twice.

Which meant:

  1. I didn’t look like I’d fall out of the sky.
  2. I could have had breakfast.
  3. I got to fly.
Finally aloft over Interlaken
Finally aloft over Interlaken

So thanks to Swiss tourism — and to the threat of a weigh-in and public humiliation — I’m now 30 pounds lighter, healthier, and on a path to stay that way.

And the weight I’m not carrying around is going to make my life climbing to the treeline a heck of a lot more fun in the future.

Growing Above Treeline: The Blog

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Tree line: “The edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing…. Beyond the tree line, trees cannot tolerate the environmental conditions.” (Wikipedia).

I have always been drawn to high places. From my first foray above treeline at the age of nine — to the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire,  where my attention was directed to the plaque commemorating all the people who had died on the mountain — I have relished the mind-bending views, the lung-cutting air, the clarity and the perspective. The muscles in my face relax and I can feel my eyes focusing differently, like a camera lens moving from a close-in macro to an all-encompassing wide angle.

It’s harsh up there: As you climb, temperatures drop and winds rise. The trees stop crowding each other out, and they get thin and short and twisted, and then they disappear leaving only shrubs and the alpine grasses. Height is not something to aspire to if you are a plant growing  above treeline.

The descent is inevitable, I suppose. You can’t actually live among rocks and ice with only the occasional lichen to munch on. There is the climb, then there is the summit, and then you are over the hill. All downhill from here.

That’s the clichéd metaphor, isn’t it?  You spend the front end of life   climbing toward some goal — a bank balance, a job, a second home with a pool and a caretaker — you achieve it (one hopes) and hang out a while buying a Maserati or ordering people around or courting skin cancer. And then it’s time to descend, before you have to be carried away. You get to tell stories and share pictures on Instagram, and it’s someone else’s turn to actually slog uphill and savor the view.

But that begs the question: If life is a mountain, what kind of mountain would it be? An active volcano, with huge temper tantrums and unpredictable eruptions and steam coming out of its head?  A giant slab of granite being raised at the rate of an inch a year by tectonic plates? A former towering giant being lowered by wind and water and time? A mondadnock, standing all alone, unconnected to any other peaks? Or one of those endless flat ridges where you almost can’t tell where the summit is?

Above treeline in Italy's Dolomites
Above treeline in Italy’s Dolomites

It’s hard to see,  when you are struggling over rocks and boulders and fighting  for breath,  the exact shape of a mountain.  What is its temperament? How will you feel at the top — Exhausted? Exhilarated? Sick from the lack of oxygen? Will you say “I conquered” — or “I survived”?  And it’s hard to know what lies on the other side. Will the descent be sharp and steep, or long and slow and almost imperceptible? Or will the mountain blow up right when you are standing on the top?  Which trail down would you choose, when it’s your turn to go over the hill?

I live on a mountain these days, and this time I’m talking literally. It’s not a very big mountain;  even so, at the summit, the forest canopy is gone, leaving only stunted dwarf pine and scrub oak interspersed with blueberry bushes and mountain laurel. My life here is a balancing act of travel, writing,  hiking, skiing, playing and teaching piano, photography, and attempting to learn to draw and paint. If that’s hard to fit in one sentence, it’s even harder to fit into a day.

Join me as I explore the treeline… the high places at the edge of comfort. The mountains we climb may be solidly literal, or they may be the airy towers of art and the imagination: Either way,  they offer clear air, challenge, the perspective of horizon-bending views, and the potential to nurture a different kind of growth.

Growing Above Treeline