General Expertise

I took up skiing just a few seasons ago, and I’m not good at it. I grew up in Alabama, and even though I came to New England for college and stayed on, I never committed to learning. That was a mistake. I spent a lot of winters sub-optimally, missing out on opportunities that were right outside my door.

I came to think of myself as a cyclist. I rode bikes. In the winter, I rode while wearing a lot of clothing. I didn’t express much interest in doing other things, because I was a cyclist, as if a pastime were an inviolable identity. I wonder, in retrospect, whether I loved riding bikes that much, or whether I was just afraid of being bad at other things. I felt safe on my bike, an expert of sorts.

But skiing opened my mind. It was hard to learn. I was embarrassed. I had cultivated an idea of myself as an athlete, and flailing around and falling down, crawling down the mountain in a deep wedge, hurt my ego in a way I wanted to shrug off, but couldn’t. That was good. It was worth it. Not only did I get better (but not very good) at skiing, but it helped me think about winter sports in a different way.

At the New Year, we planned to ski, but where we usually go they’re not able to make a lot of snow. We had to find alternative entertainment. We drove up the backside of the mountain, where the Long Trail carried us up precipitously via steep sections of packed snow, boulder scrambles and metal rungs fastened into the mountainside. The forest all around was fairytale, low evergreen with treefall openings that gifted us views to Camel’s Hump. We eventually spilled out at the top of the ski slope, which opened our minds to the geography in an unexpected way.

The next day we reverse-traced a local mountain bike trail by foot, ribboning up a long hillside with its switchbacks, berms and jumps. The dog chose the A-line. We skirted the icy corners and tried to stay upright.

On Day Three we finally decided to poach some skiing at a nearby resort, lathering ourselves with a pre-dawn uphill climb for 5 minutes of powdery turns. And we weren’t alone. A long line of half-crazed opportunists snaked its way up, headlamps glowing, breath bursting in clouds through the light. Climbing to ski is a thing beyond skiing. It’s ski mountaineering, I guess, even at a resort.

There are specialists and generalists. Specialists choose one thing at the exclusion of all others. Generalists spread their time and attention liberally. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. Except, most of the specialists I know, the ones who only ride, or only run, or only hike, or only climb, aren’t masters of their specialty either. They’re not pros. They’re not icons. Are they even experts?

I tend to think there is no such thing as expertise, only experience. Some have more than others. It’s pretty hard to say when you have enough experience to be an expert. There are no points really, no scores. When I pretend to be an expert at something, like riding bikes, really I’m projecting my ego. It’s the wrong way to get better at anything, or everything.