On learning to ski
March 8, 2023
In Reinforcement Learning there's a core tradeoff between exploration vs. exploitation. In a limited-time game, you have to choose how much you pursue novel paths and how much you stick with what you know. The latter becomes that much harder once you know that a policy mostly works. When do you decide to stop optimizing and call perfection the enemy of good?
Common wisdom says children explore while adults exploit. Children are willing to try new things in their spare time. Adults fall back on old hobbies and accept their limitations. At some point, we tend to transition from one to the other - perhaps because of risk intolerance, time limitations, or sheer laziness.
There's a body of psychology research into cultivating growth mindsets and how certain behaviors can help or hurt learning. At their core, the research shows that mindset is more important than neural plasticity. I'm sure that's right. But I feel like the hesitation to learn new things can be summed up more directly. Namely: it sucks to suck and you often have to suck in public.
- There's often physical pain associated with learning something new. It's a core limbic function to avoid pain and undue risks. You fall during a new sport; your hands fatigue from playing guitar; you land a cut from a chef's knife chopping veggies.
- There's always emotional pain with learning something new. You're good at the majority of things you do every day. Being back in a position where you're no longer good - where your body is no longer performing with the accuracy you come to expect - takes a mental toll. You don't throw the ball where you want it; you can't play the note; your soufflé looks like a pancake.
- Most hobbies are not mastered in private. You need to get out on the court and face another team; you need to play alongside another musician; you want to cook dinner for your family and not give everyone food poisoning.
I never learned how to ski growing up. We went on a handful of family trips to the mountain, but I would always end up re-learning the same pizza/french fry technique in a group lesson. Throughout the weekend I would get a bit better but then I would take off my skis and wait until the next season to put them on again. I never spent enough time accelerating into the fun area.
As it turns out - a ton of people at Stanford learned how to ski at some point. A lot learned on the east coast, some in Europe. We'd sometimes go to Tahoe as a dorm and I'd snowshoe instead of heading to the mountain. It didn't seem practical to learn again during a weekend. Especially with a higher center of gravity and exceeding the weight limit for the magic carpet.
This winter I decided to learn. I was living in Tahoe for the season since we found a good deal on a lease.1 I bought a season pass, skipped the gym membership, and started going to the mountain as my main hobby.
I vividly remember my first run. I was at the top of an absolute cliff face2 with two friends - both pro skiers. I was convinced I was going to fall on my face and roll the rest of the way down.
They skipped the beginner instructions and went straight to parallel skiing. Keep both skis tight together and alternate pressure from one foot to the other. Start with meandering turns almost perpendicular to the run. I followed their advice and got all of ten feet before landing in the snowbank beside us. After that, I not-so-gracefully got down the hill.
We looped that same two runs for the rest of the day as I got my ski legs under me. I'm sure to them it felt like we were circling a city block over and over again. Consistent scenery and not working up a sweat. For me, it still felt like I was balancing on toothpicks - some alien thing breaking the connection between me and the ground. But we got to have some laughs and catch up along the way.
At this point, twelve weeks later, I can get down any run. Some more gracefully than others. And I certainly have the thought "Dang, this is steep" more than a few times in a weekend. But sometimes you just have to swallow that feeling, face your skis down, and push off.
My takeaway from the past few months is that frequency is key. If you want to master technique quickly, you have to be on the mountain multiple days in a row and loop as many runs as you can. Infrequency is a non-starter.
I managed to carve out two hours a day to head to the mountain - filling the same slot that going to the gym typically does. On a weekday from 2-4, you're not battling any lines so you can loop a run for as long as you want. Ride up, ski down, and immediately do it again. I've gotten more skiing done in two hours on a Tuesday than I have in nine hours on a Saturday. Then I drive home and get back to work from 4-8. If you work remotely, weekdays are the move.
Another argument for frequency is pure economics. Skiing is prohibitively expensive for a day pass, even on weekdays. I've seen anywhere from $150-$300 depending on where you're going. The consolidation of passes into Ikon and Epic allows for a much lower cost per day, assuming you're committing to go frequently. For at least one season this seemed like the best way to get started and get comfortable.
I started off renting gear from Sports Basement, a local sports coop in the Bay Area. They have a package that rents skis, boots, poles, and a helmet. That worked fine while I was testing the water. But after day three my feet were killing me. Everyone I talked to said that bad boots were probably the culprit.
Most people say getting solid boots is the most important priority on the mountain. They last for years and give you more control of your skis. So - I took the plunge and bought boots. I went to a local shop where they measured my size and pulled a few different versions from the back. The whole process took two hours. They were thorough.
I was beyond thankful I didn't try to buy them online. The whole process felt a bit like going to Ollivanders in Harry Potter. The boot store owner gave major "The boot chooses you" energy. The nuance even in the same boot size can be significant. And plastic isn't the most comfortable material if it doesn't fit well.
I forced myself to ski with friends as much as I could. They dragged me on runs I had never done before - and where I wasn't positive I'd be able to get down. But they never got me into a situation where I was too far outside my ability horizon. And to that, I credit their understanding of my current capabilities. With maybe a dash of luck thrown in.
I've found that skiing is an activity where your ability quickly outpaces your confidence. You can probably ski most things, you just have to override the feeling of steepness along the way. You need to trust the people you're skiing with. I heard too many stories about people getting stuck on some rough terrain where they had to slide down for an hour. I made sure my friends were on the same page: let's go N+1 not N+10 on each step. With enough trust capital built, I was able to focus on form.
I also started bringing headphones for the times when I wasn't with other people. It let me catch up on a podcast, audio book, or just listen to music when I was on some solo lifts. Looping the same terrain doesn't provide novelty - but it does let you isolate the environment and just focus on technique.
I was told early on to "do every run twice and never end on a bad run." If you can get down one time, you can get down again. That one run is usually enough to rewrite your mental perception of steepness. And with that confidence means more speed and more fun on the ride. I've made that a motto. Even after a few falls it's a good idea to get back up and try again.
There was a red bull documentary a few years ago about a famous motocross jumper. He said that on every run he takes, he would have 10 escape lanes before he had to commit. Being able to bail early let him follow his intuition if something felt wrong. When he had to finally commit, he knew that he had plenty of opportunities behind him where he could have bailed. Having an out let him commit.
That's reflected in my own experience. When you jam on the downhill ski hard enough, you can stop on almost any terrain. Stress testing that theory - and stopping enough times along the way - built confidence in my intuition around speed. Learning how to stop allowed me to go fast.
I now love getting to the mountain - for the views, for the exercise, for the feeling of adventure. But it was also a good reminder about the process of learning something new. It was rough at times and it sometimes still will be for the foreseeable future. But that's part of the experience for which I'm grateful. Sucking in public really isn't that bad.