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On Skills

During the summer before 7th grade, I took figure skating lessons. The cool, fresh feeling of gliding across the smooth ice was exhilarating. I loved my lessons and I was a natural. This meant that the instructors were happy to work with me and frequently took me aside to show me more advanced moves. I skipped two levels. I wasn’t skilled, I was just lucky, but I took every compliment in stride. I was sure I could easily become a star with no effort at all.

By the end of the summer, I had qualified for Freestyle 1 and I was giddy. When I entered my first Freestyle lesson I knew something was different. Most of the girls were older than I was and they all wore proper skating uniforms, not sweatpants and hoodies. The instructors no longer acted as though I was special. I was excited to show off that I had already learned some of the tricks they were teaching us but I quickly learned that my moves were sloppy and they considered me a raw beginner. They reminded us all that we should begin to sign up for open ice time early in the morning so we could practice more if we wanted to keep up.

I was completely floored. I entertained the idea of independent practice long enough to try it twice. I made a routine to perform in the upcoming competition, did not win a medal, and when Freestyle 1 was over I quit.

In the years since, I have come up against many things for which I have no aptitude. I am disturbingly terrible at math and cannot memorize facts under pain of humiliation. In many ways, I have been able to forgive myself for these flaws. Effort in these areas has yielded minimal results. I learn enough to pass my classes but it has never substantially altered my life and I can sometimes even stop blaming myself for failing where others succeed.

However, I have not been able to forgive myself for quitting ice-skating. There is an enormous gulf between natural aptitude and skill. The latter requires practice that I never had the patience for and which still dogs my footsteps whenever a task that was once easy becomes difficult.

Natural ability should create a feedback loop that makes it easier to practice. It seems to do that for a lot of people, but there is a risk. It is much harder to fail when people know you have put in effort. I was too scared to face defeat after practicing ice-skating because I would have been ashamed. I was much more happy to quit while I was ahead and could brag about the time I was a wonderfully quick learner who got bored and decided to move on to new things. That is where I pretend the story ends.

This problem reoccurs whenever I achieve something I do not understand. Natural aptitude is suspicious because it cannot carry me forever. At some point I will need to practice. Everyone knows a few astonishingly good writers or math student who never spent time on a paper or used a calculator. They are frequently students who never had to study for straight As in high school and then flounder and flunk in college because they never had to learn how to do study for a class. I had no idea what made me good at ice-skating and when I no longer had that advantage I was afraid and helpless. I did not know how to practice and I was not interested in finding out.

In a strange way this has been immensely beneficial for me. I can no longer do tricks on the ice and it would take a long time to regain my previous skill but I have learned a lot about myself. I am glad that I quit when it was something that did not matter. If I had never experienced that cowardice, I doubt that I would have been able to struggle through snowboarding, poetry, and future athletics. In many ways, I am still afraid. I do not like to spend time on English papers because I worry about the shame I would feel if I actually tried and did not succeed. I worry that my effort will never be enough, but I am slowly learning how to practice.