There was hardly enough room for two cars to pass each other at 50 mph, let alone a car and something much bigger than a car. On a curvy, narrow road with no shoulder (and often no center line) on the Isle of Skye, I was a little gripped. Driving on the left side of the road, manual transmission with the shifter and pedals switched from American cars I’m used to driving, you might say it was far from a relaxing drive along the coast. Every time a car approached from the other direction on the really tight parts, I felt my arms and core tense up, and then relax again as the car passed.
But then, of course, a bus came flying around a curve. Were its wheels on the center line? Oh, they’re over the center line. This’ll be exciting. Don’t hit the bus, Brendan, don’t hit the bus. Instead of watching the bus’s tires to see how far they were in my (already narrow) lane, I stared at the edge of the road on my side, hoping my left tire had a few more inches of asphalt over there. I probably held my breath. Don’t look at the bus don’t look at the bus don’t look at the bus. The bus passed.
But then, later, more buses. Trucks. We were on the island for five days, and every day was a new thrill for me, in the driver’s seat. I never hit anything with that pristine little rental car, because someone a long time ago told me the secret to skiing in the trees: Don’t look at what you don’t want to hit. If you don’t want to hit a tree, don’t look at the trees. Your skis will go where you look.
This idea, I found, also works in mountain biking, and in life in general: Look where you want to go. Obsessing over all the bad things that could happen doesn’t mean you’re going to run into those bad things (like when you’re skiing trees), but it’s a waste of time. It’s better to obsess over the things you want to happen (and work to make them happen).
We often think of skiing as a break from our normal life, as a vacation. But if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth learning from. I started thinking about all the things I’ve learned from skiing—the value of earning your turns, you wear a helmet not because you’re a bad skier but because other people are bad skiers, don’t try to teach your partner/spouse to ski, the value of always trying to make better turns — and thought other people might have some ski-gained life wisdom as well. So I asked. Here are some of their answers.
“How to live in the moment. And embrace it. As humans, I think we rarely do that. Also, on the chairlift, how to listen to hear, not respond. Lot to learn if you just let people talk.”
“The longer you stare over the edge, the harder it gets to actually drop in.”
“Skiing has taught me a key principal of safe urban bike commuting (and general situational awareness): Head on a swivel! Keeping as close to 360 visibility at all times by constantly looking around is important when skiers and snowboards are bombing downhill from behind you, just like cars speeding past on the road. I bet you that bike commuters who also ski are in less accidents than bike commuters who do not.”
“You should always trust your gut. When it’s telling you not to do something, it’s usually right.”
“Complaining about the weather is a waste of energy. Just smile about it. You can’t get hurt going fast—it’s the sudden stop that gets you. And nobody cares if you’re accomplished at x and they value y.”
“During first lesson, my instructor said, ‘Don’t stare down the whole mountain. It’s intimidating. Just look at where you are standing and do what I tell you. When we get to the bottom, you can look back UP the mountain and be proud.’ Man. Has that turned out to be valuable life advice.”
“Here’s what skiing has taught me to apply to the rest of my life:
Happiness = Reality-Expectations.
I went skiing in Japan a few years ago with my husband, it was everything they say it should be. So, two years later, I brought a few friends back to Japan with me. I had inflated what skiing in Japan was like and then over-inflated that expectation to them. When we arrived and there was 2-3 inches of snow and somewhat warm temperatures, we were all SUPER bummed. But how stupid is that? We were with our best friends, in an INCREDIBLE place, in what on any other day would have been super fun conditions, yet, we had chalked it up to be something magical and were disappointed when it wasn’t. It’s a tough practice, but I’ve learned to set those expectations aside and just remind myself that I am there for the adventure, no matter what happens, and that I can find nuggets of happiness anywhere.”
“Backcountry skiing taught me to slow down and communicate with others. To speak up and often to keep that door open regarding decisions and risk.”
“Get excited about what’s next, not fearful.
The difference between adventure/fun and an epic/catastrophe is having a partner. Suffering is a solitary, singular venture. Comedy is community perspective. Think about it, hiking a ridgeline in a whiteout, wind blowing a bajillion miles an hour is a brutal shitshow on your own. But with a pal, it’s a ‘what the hell are we doing here’ giggle fest. Same is true in life.
Also, don’t ration your passion. Express and trumpet your happiness, your stoke. If you’re having fun, tell those around you. Psyched on the line your skiing? Whoop-n-holler during and hi5 after. Stoked that you just landed that job, paid your bills, made yourself dinner, went on a great date with that special somebody? Deploy your barbaric yawp.”
“Ski the turn you’re in. Regardless of how far or hard something is, you can only do the thing you’re doing at that moment. Doing those small things, like a single ski turn, over and over are what make up big things, whether it’s work or an adventure. You need to be mindful of where you are in the ever present moment. Secondly: You have to make the turn. You can’t be passive. If you sit back and let stuff happen to you, you end up getting bounced around, go off-course, and it can end badly. You need to be dynamic, take control, and commit over and over.”
“As a ‘recovering’ tele skier, every time I thought I had my tele turn perfected I found the hard way that I didn’t. Same with life. Get back up and keep working to get better.”
“When I was quitting my last job, I kept thinking about standing on the edge of a cornice before jumping. Everything I’d done to that point had prepared me to jump: I’d jumped off little bumps, then rocks, then jumps, I’d practiced landing and knew that even if I fell (because I had before) I could pick myself up, brush myself off, and laugh about it later. I knew the snow was soft, but ultimately I still have to take that deep breath and slide forward. Quitting my job felt the same, standing on the edge, having an idea of what my future could feel like but not knowing for sure, and having the confidence that I’d be okay no matter how I landed. It was scary to jump, but jumping turned out to be the most important thing I ever could have done.”
“Backcountry skiing and splitboarding have taught me to plan everything better, to scope the whole scene and be prepared for everything. My example: being in too big of a rush to get to the toilet without scoping the whole scene and not having TP …”
“One thing I’ve learned through skiing and other adventures like rock climbing, is to take risks and be less scared. The bad outcome usually not nearly as bad as you envision.”
“I’ve fully embraced the ‘the last one down’s having the most fun’ mantra. Sliding down snowy mountains is just fun, and life should be too. So don’t take this shit so seriously.”
“#1: Don’t leave good snow for the chance of better snow. This is not the opposite of ‘you deserve better’ or ‘treat yo self.’ It’s more about taking the moment to appreciate what you’ve already worked for, and how good you’ve got it. I think Moses may have said this first as don’t covet your neighbor’s wife.
#2: Happiness in the moment is directly correlated to the expectations you set previously, and you’re 100 percent in control of your expectations. The only shitty ski days I’ve had are when I just ‘knew’ it was gonna be a sweet powder day with tons of vert, and then it wasn’t. I’ve also had amazing ski days of 1000’ vert in the rain, because I was expecting 500. This works for buying houses, getting jobs, cooking dinners, etc.
#3: Skin tracks are better when you keep your chin up and look around, keep your heart rate low enough to breathe, and make your kick-turns razor sharp. AKA, don’t burn out and take the time to do a good job you’re proud of, or else the reward from your job won’t even be worth it.”
“Even something as fun as skiing can very dangerous—it will kill you if you’re not super careful and take the time understand the dynamics of the medium on which you are playing.”
“While being the best is fun, it’s not always the most important. Knowing that someone (or lots of someones) can send it harder and better but having the courage to do it alongside them anyways can be just as rewarding.”
—Claire Rabun Storrs
“When things get too fast and out of control, sit down.”
“If you’re not falling, you’re not learning anything.”
“Things are not always as they appear. The Imperial Express Superchair looks insane but once you get up to the top, it’s not that bad. Conversely, after that run, the Horseshoe Bowl doesn’t look scary at all until you drop in and ask ‘WTF am I supposed to do now?’ because it’s so steep.”
“It’s nice to have a sandwich with you.”
“What has cost you more in life, patience or impatience?”
“There are a lot of ways to enjoy the snow. Not all of them are the same way you enjoy the snow. Other people choosing to enjoy something you love but in a different way is ok. It even can make it better. Skiers would have never had halfpipes and snow parks without snowboarders. So moral of the story: let other people enjoy life. They’re probably making your life richer for being around them.”
—Jesse Finch Gnehm
“Backcountry skiing has taught me a ton about life. Primarily the uphill part. It’s relatable to life in that nothing just happens. You don’t just have this divine moment to where you’re able to say you’re at the top. It’s small continual steps that get you there, that came by planning, working your ass off in whatever the conditions may have been and keeping a positive mindset that you’d make it. I guess the flip side of it all is that as soon as you’re to the top it’s only a matter of time till you’re working on something else.”
More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.