I used to ski — snow ski, that is. I learned the basics of good old downhill skiing in 9th grade on the mushy slopes of Snoqualmie Summit, riding the ski bus once a week from the Washington Athletic Club. Back in those days (DANGER: NOSTALGIA ALERT!) we used to have to start tying our ski boots at about North Bend because it took so long. Yes, I said “tying.” Boots came with laces: only experienced, moneyed skiers had boots with buckles. Our skis had cable bindings, too, for that matter…but I digress.
Yes, I used to ski, and although I stopped skiing decades ago there is one lesson that our instructor (I think his name was Thor) kept drumming into us: don’t focus on the tips of your skis! As beginners that’s precisely what we tended to do. We would traverse the slope as far as we good, then make a clumsy, panicky turn and traverse back the other direction, all the while with our eyes riveted to the tips of our skis, as if that would somehow keep us vertical. As we started to gain a bit of momentum, still staring at those ski tips, we would invariably run smack into the side of a mogul and go tumbling, often popping our cable bindings in the process.
So Thor kept reminding us: don’t stare at the tips of your skis! Instead focus your attention down the slope. Not only does it help you point your weight in the right direction — it also helps you see those moguls coming up well ahead of time, so you can actually maneuver to avoid them. This was a revelation! Not only could we anticipate obstacles, we could — amazing, but true! — keep from running into them! By staring fixedly and fearfully at our ski tips we only ensured that, by the time we saw the mogul, we were milliseconds from running into it — too late to react. Looking down the slope felt counterintuitive at first, but it proved to be essential to generating any sort of rhythm on the way down the mountain. Once I had the nerve to try it, prying my eyes from those ski tips and gazing at the slope ahead, I finally started learning how to ski. (Not great, you understand, but much, much better.)
The metaphor for us seems clear. If we try to plow through our day staring at the tips of our proverbial skis, then all we ever seem to do is to react. The obstacle (a task, a deadline, a project, a problem) looms suddenly before us, completely unexpected, and our response is clumsy, awkward, unfruitful, maybe even disastrous. But as we start to lift our eyes and learn to gaze ahead down the slope, we begin to see those hazards coming. We become proactive — we anticipate. And as a result, we handle the problems better. We develop some satisfying rhythm, even some grace. And we don’t fall down quite so much!
Does every problem seem to knock you down, sprawling in the snow? Maybe you need to listen to Thor: “Stop looking at the tips of your skis!”