Willoughby: 10,000 hours to master skiing
Legends & Legacies
At the end of each ski season I count my blessings, another year of fun and no crutches. I concede to age — my skiers’ knees curtail ambition. But as I cruise groomed runs and rely on instincts programmed throughout my life, I still feel the thrill of speed and a graceful turn.
As I reflect on 65 years of the joy of skiing, I think of Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000-hour formula. In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” he provides evidence that mastery of just about any undertaking calls for 10,000 hours of practice. His examples include a youthful Bill Gates, who accessed a computer and engaged for hours. The Beatles mastered their craft through hours of live performance in Hamburg, Germany. I wouldn’t claim I ever skied as well as the Beatles played music, but I do believe at one time I came closer to their level of mastery than did lesser-known garage bands.
I estimate that I logged my first 4,000 hours on skis before I graduated from high school. Gladwell points out that putting in hours does not equate to, but is requisite for, mastery. Aspirants to mastery must constantly focus and try to improve. I don’t recall whether I constantly focused on improvement while I skied Ruthie’s Run during my primary grades. Yet I accumulated all my first 4,000 hours on Aspen Mountain. There, with the exception of the multiple times I tucked down One Leaf Two Leaf, getting better counted less like a goal than a necessity.
The sport offers many facets to master. I devoted hours of my younger life to speed and air. A 10-year-old boy thinks he really flies, until he tries to keep up with an adult. I built my own ski jumps at the bottom of Little Nell and then moved up to a small jump on the western edge. By the time I completed high school, I conquered fear and attempted the original 55-meter jump that returned to use briefly during the 1960s.
Readers may wonder how I could have logged that many hours. There was no kindergarten in Aspen the year I turned 5. I lived a block from Little Nell. The lift operators knew me as well as my parents, who allowed me to ski on my own. Too small for the lift bar to fit under my bottom, I hung on for dear life as the T-bar rose up the mountain. It took me most of a season to develop a grip that would last all the way to the top, a feat of strength and endurance rather than skill.
In Aspen’s schools, we skied every Wednesday. From first grade through high school I skied a three-day week. And vacations added skier days.
I logged my second 4,000 hours as a young adult. Aspen Country Day School, where I was a teacher, did not have a gym. Instead, our winter physical education program offered skiing on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Four days of skiing each week made the school year fly. Perhaps some of my time on the slopes did not count toward mastery because I was improving kindergartners’ skills instead of my own.
During those years I mastered moguls and developed some powder expertise. To log 10,000 hours on powder would require 80 powder days a year for 20 years.
I left Aspen for professional opportunities, so I did not squeeze in much skiing for the next 14 years. To log significant hours requires residence in a ski town. I finished off my final 2,000 hours after I turned 50. The effort helped me maintain skills. Given my earlier experience, I doubt I improved.
Had I followed a ski career as an instructor or patrolman, I may have achieved mastery at a young age and eventually reached a higher level of performance. Jerry Shimer, a classmate at Aspen High School, exceeded my level and participated as one of the early skiers in Bob Beattie’s professional races. Shimer practiced after school every day. In the summers, he skied the snowfields of Independence Pass. You didn’t have to watch Shimer ski more than a couple of runs to agree he had invested 10,000 hours in the sport.
On close examination, you may find fault with my personal calculations. I logged many hours on a chairlift. And my first 8,000 hours preceded high-speed lifts. You can’t deny that I mastered lift riding, however. I haven’t toppled off a chair since I was 7 or 8 years old.
There’s no time like the end of the season to estimate your lifelong hours. If you come up short, there may be time to snag summertime tickets to Chile.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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