The other day I was running with a friend who has been taking a capoeira class. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that’s a combination of dance and acrobatics. It’s a pretty new thing around here, so other than the instructor, most of the regulars in her class are newbies.
For quite a few weeks, she reported how much fun she was having with the class and how she felt like it was really challenging her to move in different ways. She could tell the next day that she’d worked out.
And then one day a group of teens showed up. One among them seemed really good at it. His style was a bit different than what she’d seen from her teacher. But he definitely knew what he was doing. Turns out he’d been doing it for quite some time. As my friend told me this story, she talked about the way it changed the class dynamic.
“In a good way or a bad way?” I asked. She hesitated a bit. So I asked something different, “Did you feel inspired or intimidated?”
I asked this because it’s something I’ve been reflecting on lately. When you see someone really talented doing a thing that you like to do, there’s that fine line between feeling inspired (wow! Maybe I can do that if I work at it!) or intimidated (I’m not worthy to be in the same room, on the same course, at the same event…).
Almost all of us have experienced this at some point in our lives. We feel like we’re doing really great at something, and then someone steals everyone’s thunder by being way more awesome. It happens on the dance floor, in yoga class, at races, in the pool, at the gym…and in capoeira. That’s one of the reasons for beginners classes — where you’re expected to be learning, starting out, trying new things, rather than showing mastery.
One the inspiration side of the line there’s a pull in the direction of possibility. Inspiration is all about what we imagine we might be capable of. I’ve written before about why fitspo has, for me, a kind of inspirational disvalue. Why? Because I am pretty darn sure that my 51-year old body is never going to look like that. So pictures of lean, mean, slender, flawless young women at the gym just aren’t going to get me imagining real possibilities for myself.
But when I was a still struggling to do headstands in my Iyengar yoga class, being with other students who used to topple over backward but now stood strongly on their heads, without the help or safety net of the wall, for long periods of time inspired me.
Why? Because it made the goal of doing a solid, unsupported headstand realistic for me.
I am most likely to feel intimidated when I start to compare my beginner or early days self to someone who has loads of experience. Or when I compare what I do, with my 2-3 times a week effort, to what someone else does who works at it (whatever “it” may be) for hours and hours a week. I experience this with the bike (my nemesis!).
I always put bike training at the bottom of my list of priorities. What that means is: I pretty much don’t get around to it. So it’s not realistic to compare myself to someone who gets out there 3 or 4 or more times a week. No, I will not be as fast. No, I will not get faster. And yes, they will.
When I used to make it to the pool regularly, I saw a noticeable difference in my speed. But of course, if I sleep in and skip out on the training, the people in my lane will get faster while I stay the same or fall back. That’s just the way it is.
So back to my friend and her capoeira class. She said she felt a mixture of intimidation and inspiration. This more experienced teen took them out of the comfort zone of a group of newbies learning something strange and unfamiliar. When we’re thrown into the same all-levels class with people who are actually accomplished, it’s jarring for sure. But she said it was amazing to watch him, and when she thought about it that way, the whole thing was pretty cool. Inspiring even.
Sometimes we’re the beginner, and other times we’re the veteran. Taking up new activities is a bit like traveling to a new place. When I travel, I love that feeling of getting to know a new place. But I also know that after a few days, what seemed strange and unfamiliar loses its foreignness. In no time at all, I’ve got my routes, favourite spots, some sense of local customs, and I can navigate the new territory like a native, without needing to refer to my map all the time. But just because I didn’t know how to get to the subway station on day one and I had to stop and ask someone doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. It doesn’t have to be intimidating to be surrounded by people who know more and can do “it” better.
What about you? Are you more likely to be inspired or intimidated when you find yourself in the presence of someone who is much better than you at something? I get that it will depend on circumstances, but I think it’s interesting to thing about how talent in others affects our sense of ourselves and what we can do.