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Skiing between the trees

My son, the rocket scientist, mulling over a lesson in simple physics.

When you grow bored skiing the groomed slopes of a ski area and decide to try the more challenging task of skiing through the dense forest, you sometimes spend a lot of your time picking tree bark out of your teeth. I once heard a ski instructor explain that skiing the trees is hard until you learn that you cannot look at the trees. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said that if you want to ski between the trees, you have to look at everything but the trees. You put on your blinders (in a sense) and work to only see the open patches of snow and the open paths between the trees. When you start looking at the trees, you will crash into the trees. If you are fixating on seeing the snow that fills the space between the trees, you can ski through those spaces and the trees aren’t as likely to make a lasting impression on you.

It doesn’t just apply to skiing either. When I was a teenager, I got to work one summer in Carlsbad New Mexico. I was part of a two-man crew that loaded bales of hay on big rigs--tractor-trailers. We waited at the public scales for a truck to show up empty, and see if he needed loading/unloading. We each got a dollar a ton and we thought we were getting rich. The average truck we loaded carried somewhere north of 50,000 lbs. (25-28 tons). On an average day we could load one truck in the morning, and one in the afternoon. On occasion we got to unload a third truck into a local barn somewhere, so on those days, we would handle 70+ tons of hay each. We were in tall cotton! We were young and strong, and only slightly stupid, so we were flush with cash. The minimum wage back then was 2 or 3 dollars an hour. We were clearing close to $10 an hour, so we thought we were stud ducks!

Anyway, loading those big semis with hay meant taking the big rigs out into the fields where the hay was baled and just laying in the field waiting to be sold.

The point I was wanting to make was in reference to getting that big semi through some of the narrow farm roads going into and out of the hay fields. The space between the fence posts at some of those gates was only a few inches wider than the tractor-trailer. The semi would sometimes only clear the posts by a few inches on each side. The driver in those things sits so high he doesn’t get a view at all of the posts on the passenger side of the truck. He has to just navigate the passage knowing the post is over there, but not being able to see it.

I once asked a driver how he did it and he just said, “I drive through the gap”. Knowing that his answer wasn’t really helpful…he then chuckled and explained what he meant. Turns out he intuitively just fixed his gaze on what looked like the center of the opening, and then drove to that. The posts were initially in his peripheral vision, but he didn’t look at them. He looked at where he wanted to go and he drove to that.

With some thought, I realized that this is profound.

I think we are sometimes paralyzed when we find ourselves faced with serious challenges. I think we fixate on the trees rather than the space tween the trees, or we fixate on the fenceposts, instead of the opening, and then we predictably find ourselves running into stuff that further convinces us that we just aren’t capable.

Sometimes we let negative self-talk saddle us with all kinds of limiting beliefs and constraints that are all a result of fixating on the trees, instead of looking for the openings. I frequently hear people throw out constraint after constraint that is nothing but negativity or fear. What they are saying is I want help, but “I’m not willing to go there.” They want out of the pickle they are in, but they are unwilling to budge because they are fixating on the fearful outcomes instead of focusing on the openings and then going for it.

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