This past weekend I went paddle boarding for the second time ever. It was on a lake, with wind, and wakes from speed boats, and family members nearby on paddle boards and in kayaks. And everyone says how easy it is to stand-up paddle. That may be true – eventually – after you have learned how to pay attention to all the feedback coming in from eyes, hears, feet legs, hands. What was true for me was that it took a while to get comfortable enough to actually stand up. I am notoriously bad at staying balanced – physically, that is. I do great on a bike, but pretty much stink at anything else on wheels or that slides on ice or snow. So when I started on the paddle board, I stayed really low – as in, sitting on my feet. I was not particularly scared of falling in the water, but it was not very warm out so the idea was not that appealing. Mostly the experience of feeling unbalanced is disconcerting for me so I was happier low down.
Eventually, my legs got tired of that position, and I felt like I should at least give it a try. The hardest part was getting up on my feet at the beginning – all wobbly and uncertain. So much going on – all the small movements, all the different forces acting on me. Just a slight overcorrection and I almost fell in. Then a speed boat approached. One of my paddling partners helpfully told me to point my board into the wake. That seemed like a good idea, except that there were two wakes coming at me from different directions. I had no idea what to do, so pretty much just stood there waiting and trying (and failing) to relax. Fortunately, the wakes were quite small by the time they arrived at my board.
I eventually gained comfort on the board. Never fully at ease, but able to relax enough to look around and take in some of the scenery. And always very aware of all the micro adjustments I was making with my feet, legs and torso – constant response to real-time feedback. My conscious brain could definitely not keep up with the speed needed to avoid the water. So it was relegated to observer. I imagine with more time, this could become pretty second nature to me, much as I am on a bike. This experience has led me to consider the role that fear plays as a barrier, or accelerator, to learning. It makes sense that a high amount of fear can really get in the way of learning – as it did for me with rollerblading. A quick search of the internet showed ample references to scholarly articles and self-help sites on this topic. I think being in a state of fear makes it very difficult to learn anything new, whether a new physical skill, mental skill or emotional skill. But it also seems that just a little bit of fear could help learning – ratcheting up your focus, bringing more energy to whatever activity you are trying for the first time – more attention to the feedback you are received, whether from your body, your senses or other people. The optimal learning zone probably falls somewhere between complacency and panic. Noticing your fear level might help you recognize when you are in that learning zone, and use it as an indicator for whether you are pushing it too hard, or not enough.