From Black to Double Black

Last week I was skiing in the mountains of Utah (USA), known for its astounding snow conditions. Although we didn’t experience its famous fluffy powder, we had plenty of new snow and good and fun conditions.

However, this post is not about my skiing in Utah, but about something that occurred to me while skiing in some of the more challenging runs. It came to me that there are similarities between skiing and the act of creating—as an analogue between the two. It goes to something I often enough have addressed in this blog, which has relevance for any artist or anyone who embarks on a creative endeavour.

It’s fair to say I am a good skiing, I think. Although I don’t see myself as an expert, I usually negotiate black diamond runs comfortably enough. The next level up, though, double black diamond runs, they are challenging enough for me. I’ll willingly enough admit that it feels somewhat daunting to get on a lift when you are warned that this is for experts only. And when you stand there at the top of the quite steep run or a narrow shoot, it’s definitely intimidating I would think even for many experts.

Nevertheless, again and again I find myself trying the best I can to cope with double blacks. I just want to feel the power of control and knowing I can do it. And of course the fun of whenever you feel you enter into a state of flow. I do fall and I do scrabble down those double black diamonds, but the only way to one day be able to master them is by doing them.

That’s when the parallel to the act of creation occurred to me. Because no matter how many times I practise in a regular black diamond run, and no matter how good I get at mastering those runs, I will never be able to reach the proficiency needed to master double black runs, without actually doing them. You cannot train for the double blacks in a single black runs. It is as simple as that. You need to pass the initial inhibition and intimidation holding you back to step up one level and just do it—and accept that you will fail, that you will fall, that you will fumble down the slope.

It’s the same at whatever level of skiing you are. You can’t prepare yourself for a single black run in a blue run, or a blue run in a green run. You need to take a chance when stepping up.

That’s exactly what you have to when you want to expand you creative skills, become better at whatever it is you like to create. You need to get out of the safety of the famous box, take chances, risk failing and falling. If you stay within the safe boundaries of the box, you will not step up to the next level. Your art will stagnate.

There is another aspect to this analogue. When you are a rooky, a new skier, you know that you don’t start in the double black diamonds, not even the blue runs. That could easily kill you in a worst-case scenario. Likewise with the act of creating. Don’t expect to perform like an expert when you start out, but rather take it step by step. Learn the easy skills first and then keep moving up and slowly by slowly become better. And don’t get discouraged when you fall. We all fall. Just get up and do it again. Know that at some point you will be ready to take the chance to step up to the next level.

There is a third piece to my analogue. We all want to be good at what we do. However, remember that even the best started out in a green run. Picasso or Cartier-Bresson or Beethoven didn’t miraculous become masters. They did all the necessary runs at each level, too. So don’t compare yourself with the masters. If you want to reach the level of mastery, just be aware that it takes a hell of a lot of work, a lifetime of efforts in fact. If you enjoy blue runs, that’s just fine. Keep doing them. And if you don’t like skiing at all, well, there is plenty of other fun activities you can embark on. Just keep creative and every so often step out of the box.

61 thoughts on “From Black to Double Black

  1. Without even trying, I would compare myself to the Masters when I was young, become overwhelmed and give up before I even started. When I learned, bit by bit, I noticed I improved and was happy with the process as well as some of the results.No black diamond runs for me at this stage, but to get up on skis would be a joy. And photos, I enjoy the seeing and beholding. thanks for an inspirational article, Otto.

    1. I think we have all been there, comparing ourselves with the masters without realizing what a disfavour we did to ourselves. Keep up with improving. As with so much in life, it’s the process that matters, not the end goal itself.

  2. Excellent post, Otto.

    I think all novice photographers have to also remember, that even National Geographic Photographers have bad photography days and it might take them weeks/months of observing wildlife and taking dozens of images before they get that perfect shot for a magazine cover. Even then, they might have done quite a lot of photo editing to bring the final image to its full potential.

    I remember taking 605 photos one afternoon back in late 2010 just after I bought my first Point & Shoot cheap camera and only one image was worth keeping. I get a few more ‘keepers’ in recent years, but even those are not necessarily great compositions, merely a series of images to illustrate a walk in the local park or nature reserve (or just a story of where I went that day and what I saw along the way).

    1. You are so right, all photographers—even the best—have bad days. And, yes, there is a lot of work behind stories published in magazines like NGS. In my latest photo project, I think my amount of so-called keepers are less than 1 percent.

  3. I’m a writer. I have written many poems but I’m writing my book this year. Thank you 🙏 that was helpful to read tonight. I’m feeling overwhelmed tonight.
    Sally McKee

  4. This is BRILLIANT, Otto! And I can relate to this post on a visceral level. I, too, am a good skier. Until very recently, I always shied away from defining myself as the scary “expert” skier. But, to get bindings properly adjusted, to buy appropriate ski boots & skis, one must be honest. If you ski mostly on black runs, as I do, those are rated “expert” runs, so we should embrace the term. Expert, after all, doesn’t mean beyond improvement.

    During the past 10 years of retirement I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with groups of similarly skilled skiers for weekly group coaching classes. I felt so uncomfortable the first few years because I did want to ski with that top level of skiers–the skiers I wanted to be! But I worried I’d hold them back. I worried that I looked like an elephant tearing up great powder. But through the years, the comments of these skiers and of the instructors has slowly brought me to a place where I can say, I’m an expert skier. The instructors often preface their drills or suggestions with, “Top level skiers like you . . . ” Eventually that drills in. Funny thing is, I rarely feel like an expert, especially on those double blacks, which my local hill doesn’t have. But I crave double blacks. I love the fear factor, which I must quickly muzzle as I stand at the top of the precipice thinking, what if?. The longer I let those thoughts roam, the more my heart races, the more I psyche myself out. Once over the edge, muscle memory takes over. Not always as gracefully as I’d like, but I’m reasonably confident that I can get myself out of any situation. (Except, perhaps, a tree well.)

    Your analogy to confronting the boundaries of creativity is incredibly apt. As a matter of fact, as artists, I think we have less to fear from jumping off the cornice than we have as skiers, because skiers, in over their heads, can really get hurt or killed. What’s lost if an artist takes the plunge and fails miserably? Not death. Just disappointment, humility, maybe some wasted film resources. All replaceable!

    Utah skiing is some of the best. Their liquor laws leave a lot to be desired. 😉

    1. Plus, I forgot to mention that this post also reminded me of Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, which studies the merits of 10,000 hours of practice as compared to unpracticed rare talent.

    2. We are clearly in the same place when it comes to skiing—and as artists. Like you, I want to ski with the best, but I really don’t like the feeling of being that elephant you describe. Luckily enough, my love one is a much better skier than me, so I just had to get used to the feeling. And she has definitely helped me stretching my skills. And, yes, you are right, physically there can be a lot more at risk when going skiing. Finally, you are also right about the liquor laws in Utah.

  5. I like the analogy, Otto. Written by a good teacher as well as a good skier! It is not easy for the learner alone to appreciate their own realistic capabilities. Therein lies the value of a good instructor.

  6. You are absolutely right! Nothing comes out without any thing put into it. Your post reminds me of reading biography of a Nobel price physicist. I never claimed himself as a genius but rather just was just crazy about solving problems and just kept at it.

  7. As a New Yorker, retiring out west (western CO, Dakotas, et al) is my dream. I’m quite athletic for my age and keeping fit certainly fortifies you for dealing with the harsh environmental conditions one can encounter in rural or semi-rural areas.

    But competitive skiing? As good as you obviously are at it, aren’t you afraid you’ll brake something? I know next to nothing about skiing but it seems that unlike these apparently gentle slopes
    you’re going for the killers.

    1. I hope you will get to realize your dream. As for breaking legs when skiing, I actually don’t think literally about the possibility. But sometimes I am scared and know that it’s possible to get hurt, one way or another. So far, though, I have gotten way with it. Thanks for stopping by and comment, Gregory.

  8. Ah- those double blacks! For a girl from Mississippi, water skiing was the sport, and I knew just enough about snow skiing to advance every so slowly…. Once I skied with a group of guys who later told me, ‘If you’d lost one more article of clothing we’d have given you a 10.’

    I stayed in the village that next day and cooked for everyone else and also did some drawing – skills better suited for me!

    Even when we reach those black diamonds of life, there are still many times when we wonder, ‘Sigh – should I give up/toss in the towel and bow to the true pros?’

    No way.. |It’s human for us to feel like that, as you point out, but we keep moving forward.

    I thought of you this weekend when photographing the oropendolas that should not be in the area. They’d come much closer but were fidgeting and very difficult to capture. Finally I got close enough to a few and I thought/hoped that some of the images would be clear. Always remembering your advice, I did not stop to review the images – and sure enough another VIP species dropped in for half a minute and allowed another short documentation… As always, thanks, Otto – your advice is often heeded and always appreciated!

    1. Thank you for the lovely feedback, Lisa. I am glad that the advice about not reviewing the images you have just captured, worked out so well. And yes, we human beings don’t like to look like we can’t handle things – even if it puts us at risk.

  9. Good analogy, and for me, apt in more sense than one. I’ll never be a double black skier, and I’ll never be an expert photographer – for either I lack both the commitment and perhaps the aptitude. But I’ve been known to awkwardly make my way down single black diamonds, and occasionally manage a more advanced photo as well. As you suggest, for mastering either it takes time and commitment (and maybe a little natural aptitude.)

    1. To master something it does take time and commitment – and I would add passion. I am not sure if it’s necessary with neither aptitude nor talent as long as you are willing to commit with passion the necessary work. However, we don’t have to become masters by any means, what is important is enjoying whatever we do. It’s the journey itself, not some goal, that matters.

  10. Love this analogy Otto… I haven’t skied for 25 years but I do recall the fear I felt of the black diamond runs… well only a few times the double black diamond runs. In the end, I realized I preferred the blue. This sort of relates to the blog you posted today on photographic development… and I think there, I have prefer the subjective approach. As you know I have mostly gravitated to scenic photography, although sometimes I would much rather move to the black diamond side. For example, to really capture the essence of things that maybe aren’t just pretty. Guess that’s why my blogs use a narrative or essay approach… using my photos to enhance something I have strong feelings about. Funny…. I have never really felt that comfortable about having my photos stand by themselves.

    1. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. We all find our way, and if for you that is to combine words and photos, that is just perfect. Otherwise I am glad you can relate to what I write and also see how the two latest blog posts relate.

  11. It occurs to me that it’s on the level of the green runs that we learn the basics. Without those basics, we’ll surely fail on the blue runs, and without adding skills and honing them on the blue runs, we won’t be ready for the black. On the other hand, we do learn and improve, and that’s why teachers, or at least colleagues, are so important. Others sometimes recognize when we’re ready to move on, before we recognize it ourselves, and their encouragement can be important.

    Beyond that, it can be good from time to time to leave the blue or black runs and return to the green, just to check our techniques and be sure that bad habits haven’t developed. There are many ways to do that. I’ve just received a four-disc set called “Fundamentals of Photography,” designed and presented by Joel Sartore, the wonderful National Geographic photographer. He’s worked with a photographer friend of mine in Kansas, and when I asked whether the set would be worthwhile, my friend answered with an unequivocal “yes.” I think it will be good to take such a disciplined approach — almost starting from the beginning. Some things I’ll already know, but there’s much I don’t know, and I suspect once I’ve finished the lessons, I’ll have much more fun on the photographic slopes!

    1. Someone observing our development from the outside can be of tremendous help. As you point out, we might not feel ready to step up the game ourselves, but someone else may indeed help make us see what we can’t see ourselves. And, yes, sometimes it’s good to repeat old skills and techniques in order to make sure we don’t lose sight of where we came from.

  12. Oh…”When I Was Young”…och så många andra tankar. Underbart och tillbakablickande för mig. Jag var en “skibum” när jag var ung, nu är jag bara en “Old Lady” ,men med många sköna minnen. Vill inte säga “Forever Young”…men säger det ändå…

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