Intimidation or Inspiration?

Inspiration-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.




5 thoughts on “Intimidation or Inspiration?

  1. I’m intimidated by people who are really good at yoga because I know that I will never be (I’ve had back surgery and my movement is limited). I can certainly improve, but I will never be doing any advanced contortions.

    If I see someone who is really good at something that I’m also good at it (and can actually get better at), then I’m inspired. I’ve been doing a lot of home fitness videos and I want to increase the weight that I use to match the awesome instructors (and I know that it will be possible for me one day).

    Maybe I’m just being a baby about it! Ha.

  2. I found yoga at 42. I love it. I practice most days and I teach. I enjoy every single minute.
    But sometimes when i go to a class with a gymnast 20 year old instructor I feel less than. I feel like that could have been me, if only I was younger.

    That is a valid thought that I explore. I appreciate her youth. And I appreciate all the years and things my own body has done. And i realize that that teacher can be awesome and so can I, even if we are totally different.

    When I teach I often do less advanced moves. Yoga is a path of freedoms for me. I don’t think it matters if you can bind in bird of paradise or you stay in extended size angle. The freedom is available regardless.

    In fact, you only need to pause and be in your body. Just be.

    Growth opportunities are everywhere.

  3. If it’s something I like doing and want to get better at, I find it inspiring to be around those who excel. Otherwise I don’t really think about it much.

    This is a discussion I do have quite often, though. I used to work at a small gym where the dominant culture was to be intimidated by those who excelled, and to exclude or backhandedly belittle them. I hated it, finding it to be completely at odds with the point of training, and did my best to counteract it. Unfortunately, because one of the other coaches was the driving force, I was unable to eliminate it.

    From what I understood, one of the major factors was that it was disheartening to struggle with something while the person next to you was taking on a harder variation and barely straining. Some people decided to take it as a challenge, but others found it to be a put-down. What’s funny (?) is that these people were never the majority, but were simply the louder ones.

    It helped that eventually we had a few trainees I could use as excellent inspiration: they had started out about on the same level as everyone else, but eventually were counted among the top performers. Once people realized just how far these few had come, it became easier to convert them to the mindset of being inspired by excellence instead of frightened.

    I think that the knowledge and awareness of the transformation process is a huge factor in whether you are inspired or intimidated. If someone walks in and is instantly better than you at everything, it’s hard not to be put down somewhat by your perceived inadequacies. On the other hand, if you were there to watch someone’s progress – from their struggles with the most basic plank, to the point they could hold themselves in a headstand – you’d be able to appreciate the effort and persistence that went into it, and take away something more positive and ultimately helpful.

  4. I have been working to reach a stage where neither intimidation nor inspiration affect me too much. I carefully choose activities that I enjoy, regardless of my skill level. Then I work hard to be good enough that I’m not horribly intimidated, but stay realistic and recognize that I’m 55 so there are limits to how much I can achieve, no matter how much I aspire to the fit young things zipping past me in the pool or on a bike, or kicking and bending well beyond what I could do as a teenager.

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