Last week in Devon I had my first surfing lesson, with the excellent team at Discovery Surf at Bigbury. I was lucky to have a private session, as alongside me in the waves were a class of schoolkids on half term, all of them better than me. Or at least that’s how it felt.
Surfing is terrific fun, even if you’re rubbish, like me. A useful pointer to men-of-a-certain-age thinking they might have a go would be: lie down in a prone press-up position. Now stand up as smoothly and quickly as you can. How was it? If it’s not easy on the solid floor, it’s not going to be easy on a floating board. I’m about as flexible as a surfboard, so while I did manage a few very brief moments of success, I was mostly in, rather than on, the water.
Surfing also hurts. It used muscles I wasn’t really aware of before. And it made me feel just a bit old. I was creaking and cracking, and realised that I don’t like learning. More pointedly, I don’t like being shit at stuff.
I have forgotten how to be a beginner. We talk about comfort zones and shy away from new experiences, but it’s more than that. We forget how to learn things, right from the start, how to be unconsciously incompetent. I knew standing up smoothly was going to be my downfall (and I was right, constantly). And that affected my commitment, technique, everything. The children had no preconceptions: they might fall off and swallow a load of water, but they didn’t have the concept of ‘can’t’. The instructors were telling them what to do, how and when to move, and if they did it, there was a fair chance they would stand up and glide across the surf. Why wouldn’t there be?
I, on the other hand, was filled with doubt. I have no physical memories of surfing, so it’s not like re-learning a skill. Last week I also read Jasper Rees’ entertaining “I Found My Horn”, in which he retells his year-long rediscovery of the French Horn. As a horn-player myself I liked it a lot and I must practise more(!), but it’s a whole different game from being a complete novice. I’m a decent player, but I have a massive fear of learning piano, something my young daughter is doing pretty well.
All because I need to learn how to learn again. Comfort Zones are simply places we can easily relate to previous experiences. We construct a framework of references, so even if the task is challenging, we mentally and physically perceive it against something from our past, something we’re good at. Truly emerging from a comfort zone means setting aside your experiences, not trying to categorise or classify stuff, and just being there. Try to be like a child. What would they do?