Turns out “innate talent,” or “smarts,” or “being a natural” doesn’t count for nearly as much as we think. I’m closing in on 50, so during childhood we heard constantly about who was “intelligent” or if we (occasionally, at best!) did well in school, we’d hear how “smart” we were. This type of mindset and this type of complimenting or coaching isn’t ideal--framed within Carol Dweck’s research, it fosters a “fixed mindset,” rather than a “growth mindset.”
A growth mindset allows for failure, improvement, and greater competence. The fixed mindset, on the other hand, assumes you either have it, or you don’t. Are you smart, or not? You can see the problem here: kids who are told they’re smart worry that if they fail at something, they’ll suddenly be “not smart.” And if smarts are god-given and/or genetically determined, well, not much room for improvement.
This growth mindset allows for improvements in almost anything. Rather than suggesting Pele was born to play soccer, we’re better off reminding ourselves (and our kids, or our mentees) that Pele spent thousands of hours perfecting his play. Sure, he was born with some measure of innate capacity, but how many other kids were, too? Sit on the couch with a VO2 max of 80 and guess what you get? A worn in couch and no clue what you could’ve been. Had Pele hit the donuts and ridden on his “innate” talent, he wouldn’t have won three World Cups and established himself as the best player of the 20th century.
Integral to improvements in this growth mindset is the concept of deliberate practice. Researchers contrast this with shallow practice; that is, just messing around, half-heartedly or distractedly practicing, etc. Deliberate practice, on the other hand, requires four main components: 1) working on one’s weaknesses 2) full concentration 3) feedback and 4) repetition until mastery.
I’m poaching the smarter stuff herein from an excellent article out of Berkeley, so please don’t think I’m presenting anything as my own, or myself as some sort of expert. What I will say, though, is that having gone through the guiding program at the AMGA and watching friends and others do the same--the people who pass their exams first go are the ones with a mindset that allows for learning, making errors, and honest debriefing with an eye towards daily improvements. That’s a pretty succinct recipe for deliberate practice.
Bike racers utter the phrase, “race your strengths, but train your weaknesses.” The same can be said for climbers and skiers. Know what you’re good at. Take those leads, use those strengths in your guiding, whatever it takes. On your days off, however, instead of just doing what you’re good at (it does feel good, though, to slay at something, eh?!), intentionally do a route or practice a technique at which you are terrible! Complex transitions, balancey short-roping, off-width climbing, even something as mundane as spacing on a rope for glacier travel. That last one, as humbling as it is to admit, is something I have to revisit every time I guide on a glacier. It’s easy to get comfortable climbing trade routes in Eldo and Red Rock, but given how little time I spend on glaciers, I have to swallow my pride and think ahead to distances, knots, how many bodies on the rope, how long a rope, etc. Ugh!
Without diving too far down the rabbit hole, I’ll throw in a plug for the feedback portion of the deliberate practice model. Imagine trying to learn to golf. You go to the driving range, watch a few YouTube videos, buy a reasonably good set of clubs, do some sort of golf-specific stretching (is this a thing? Do golfers stretch or lift weights? I have no clue; I’m just BS’ing with an example here!). You get there, buy a six-month pass to the range, watch some experts hit balls, get unlimited balls for your visits. You’re ready. You’re going to slay and be playing under-par rounds soon enough.
At the last minute, though, somebody comes out and says, “Oh yeah, one thing. You don’t get to see where the balls go.” Huh? Yeah, imagine doing an activity in which you can’t see the outcome of your activity. Did you shank the ball left? Perhaps you whiffed entirely and the ball didn’t move. You would no feedback whatsoever. You’d have no indication if you’re hitting straight, or if every ball you hit just rolls impotently off the tee.
Going out climbing or skiing without evaluating your day is exactly this, whether you’re working as a mountain guide or doing it for fun. Without accurate and honest feedback, you have no way of knowing if you nailed it down the fairway or shanked into the weeds.
I love guiding with colleagues who are quick to offer constructive, thoughtful feedback. Tom Wolfe and I just worked a ski & sail trip on Svalbard. After a graybird day of low-vis and frustrating skiing, I returned to the boat and noticed Tom seemed not to be tweaked at all. “Ah, we didn’t have the visibility,” he laughed. He could see I was a bit frustrated at not delivering for guests and just touring around a bit, rather than skiing something interesting.
“You make the most of what’s available,” he said, and shrugged. It was super simple, but reminded me to keep it fun and relaxed, even if the skiing doesn’t cooperate. Simple! Easy, gentle feedback, but it helped keep it in perspective for me when we had another morning of low-vis, later in the week.
An accurate and honest assessment of your skill, process, and outcome is paramount here. That requires some self-reflection, as well as honest and constructive teammates willing to debrief. I don’t subscribe to the “brutal” honesty thing, either. Sure, feedback might be uncomfortable, but there’s a vast difference between saying, “You keep rappelling like that and you’re going to die like a dog” and “Man, I read about a near-miss with a dude who had his third-hand backup clipped to his leg loop like that. We should think about that.” Similar outcome, but one spares the dooshy one-upsmanship so prevalent at the crag and on MP.com.
Climb, ski, and guide with teammates committed to accuracy, rather than “being right.” Huge difference in mindset and accurate feedback will help you identify weaknesses in your practice--which you can then address.
One of my fantastic weaknesses is the ability to procrastinate. I should be working on The Ski Guide Manual at the moment, but instead I’m blogging. Ugh. I’ll dive back into a related post soon...but I need to bust out 25-percent of this book before September 1. The clock is ticking!