Learning To Learn

My alarm goes off. It’s 5:45am, more than an hour before sunrise, and I need to make coffee before driving over to CrossFit E-Town for the 6:30 introductory class. I’m excited because we’re learning snatches today – a movement I’ve never tried before. I’m also 95% asleep and I know it’s going to be cold in the warehouse they call a gym.

God forbid I go to class without a little hot coffee in me, I blaspheme, as I roll out of bed and try to dress in the dark without waking Jay.

After the 5:30am class finishes up their workout, we newbies start class by reviewing the components of a clean: hip extension, shrug, pull, and drop into a front squat before finishing in standing position. Then we throw those basic movements (extension, shrug, pull) into a more difficult stance: an overhead squat. Put together, that’s a snatch, the trickiest Olympic lift.

And it’s immediately obvious that I suck at this.

We spend the class trying different variations: hang, high hang, power, and the complete range of motion from the ground to a deep overhead squat and back up to standing. Then we throw a set of hang snatches into the WOD. The other guy in my class, a former college football player who weighs at least twice as much as I do, crushes it. Snatches for days, bro.

I, on the other hand, look like a demented walrus. I may or may not fall over. Repeatedly. By the end of class, all I can think is:

“I suck at this. But this is awesome.”

Accepting my weaknesses and enjoying the process of improving is a new feeling for me.

It’s a well documented phenomenon that children who are praised often become risk-averse. When you think adults expect you to be smart or talented or whatever, you become so afraid of letting them down. For much of my academic career (this is going to sound terrible coming from me), I didn’t actually enjoy learning. I rarely went out and learned things just because I found them interesting. I was just a cog in a machine of taking classes, crash-studying for exams, getting grades, being rewarded. Rinse and repeat. You would think a place like Princeton would beat that out of you, but it really doesn’t. Maybe it just makes it worse.

It took a some hard falls, failures and losses, to break me open and let me try new things. I still struggle with this – not wanting to fail, not letting people see me fuck up – but there have been a few examples lately where learning, and the mistakes that naturally come with learning, have triumphed over hesitation, fear, and risk aversion. I’m starting to enjoy being terrible at new things, because that brings with it anticipation of improvement. (And by improvement I kind of mean conquest. Once Type A, always Type A, right?)

Olympic lifting is one area where I’m happy to start at the bottom of the barrel. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I also have no bad habits, which is a serious problem for people who come into class with previous experience. I have a lot to learn and nowhere to go but up. I suck at this. But this is awesome.

Photography is another field where I have a lot to learn, and I’m loving the process. I bought my first DSLR two months ago, and every week I try to first read about a new photography topic and second go take some pictures. The reading material ranges from super basic stuff (exposure triangle) to niche projects (baking photography). This week’s photo shoot was the Chicago Botanic Garden on a beautiful autumn day. Most of my photos were terrible – anyone with an iPhone could do better – but I got some much needed practice shooting in aperture-priority mode. I suck at this. But this is awesome.


I’ve had a similar experience running with my new club. I’m the slow one in my pace group. My fastest endurance run is their lazy slow run. Many of them have qualified for Boston in their respective age groups (and mine). But running with them anyway, and dropping back when I really can’t keep up, makes me stronger in the long run. (Pun intended.) Last week I did my first double-digit run in a long time, a little over 10 miles along the lake front. It felt amazing, though I and the runner who kept me company were the last to get back. I suck at this. But this is awesome.

I hope, in time, this excitement to try, mess up, learn, and keep going becomes the new normal, instead of a notable exception to the rule.

For your amusement, the world record for the snatch. Holy. Shit. – xoxo, A


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