Friday, September 7, 2012

On Saying “Yes.”

During my junior year at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, I applied for two opportunities—both of which I considered long shots. The first involved an application to be a Colby Senior Scholar in creative writing during my final year. The second was an official request to be hired as part of the coaching staff for a summer ski camp in Zermatt, Switzerland—unquestionably the best summer job I’d ever heard of, and one I couldn’t truly imagine getting.

One day that spring of my junior year, I walked into the student center to check my mail. I’d just returned from break and knew I would soon be hearing back, one way or the other, about both opportunities. As I walked toward the banks of student mailboxes, I was afraid to be too hopeful. I hated disappointment. I still do. So, I reasoned with myself that since I had put a lot of time and effort into both applications, there was a reasonable likelihood that I would get one acceptance—but definitely not two. I somehow figured that two rejections were also unlikely—though I knew little of odds and didn’t have any idea how many other applicants I’d been up against for either position. Of course, I wanted both like a kid in a candy store wants both 100 Swedish fish and a pound of red lace liquorish, but the summer ski camp job was the easier one to lust for; it sounded like an all-expense-paid trip to Disney World with souvenirs included. It sounded too good to be true, so I imagined it was.

When I sorted through my mail, I found envelopes from both the Senior Scholar Program and from Swiss Challenge, the ski camp in Zermatt. I opened the Senior Scholar letter, and read a sentence that started with something like, “We are pleased to . . .” No further reading required; I knew I had at least landed opportunity number one. The envelope from Swiss Challenge was less formal and included a personal note. It too indicated that congratulations were in order, and it urged me to contact the camp right away with my decision; it explained that there were many other candidates who would be happy to take my spot should I decline. I called John Morton, the director of Swiss Challenge, immediately to accept. I accepted the Senior Scholar offer as well—but it was only after saying “yes” to both that I began to doubt myself, to panic, and to question whether or not I was qualified. Was I good enough? Would I be successful? I said “yes” to both immediately and impulsively because “yes” seemed to be the only answer. Logic told me it would have been idiocy to decline these obviously splendid offers. In the abstract, they were perfect—they were the types of things I’d hoped to be able to say about myself: “Yes, I am a Senior Scholar in creative writing this year.” And, “Yes, I’ve been hired to coach skiing in Switzerland.” But when I really thought about it, when I tried to picture myself doing these things—for real—I got scared.

The only thing tempering my anxiety about the Swiss Challenge job was my friend R.B. Klinkenberg. R.B. had been a coach at Swiss Challenge the summer before and was the one who had not just encouraged me, but told me unequivocally that I had to apply. He painstakingly explained every step I needed to take in order to be hired. The process involved submitting a formal application, then following up with many letters explaining how I wanted the position more than anyone else. I followed R.B.’s instructions and advice without question, and when John Morton told me I was hired, he confirmed that my persistence had indeed won me the job. But despite knowing that R.B.—both the big brother I never had and the captain of our alpine ski team—would be going back to Zermatt with me, I was deeply concerned. Most of the coaches Swiss Challenge hired were ski racers from division one colleges. R.B. and I were at Colby—a division two school. I figured that all of the other coaches would be far more qualified. They would be in better shape. They would ski better than I did. They would hike faster than I did. They would leave me in the dust. I would be embarrassed to even be there. How could I expect to coach with them? Even the junior racers attending the camp would probably ski circles around me. Such was my insecure monologue, which I now understand was all about just one plain yet powerful thing: fear. I was simply afraid that having leapt before I’d looked; I would stumble—and I would fail at this thing I had wanted so badly.

Despite my fears, I bought a pair of purple-trimmed Hi-Tec hiking boots, and with my parent’s help, I packed way too much gear for my Swiss adventure. My parents brought me and all my excess gear to the airport, where I was a nervous wreck. I was worried about my shirt being too see-through despite the bra covering my A-cup breasts—so my Mom, as always, told me to relax and loosen up. I looked just fine, she said.

What seemed like minutes after arriving in Zermatt, I was told to join a couple of other instructors for a hike up to an alpine restaurant called Edelweiss. Before I had a chance to protest, I was breathing heavily and sweating my way up the steep and dusty path rising out of the village of Zermatt and leading to the mountain restaurant perched just a 20 to 30 minute hike above town. It was day one. I didn’t yet know anything or anyone, but I was there in my new hiking boots, doing it.

In the days that followed, I reconnected with R.B. I got myself settled, and I met my ski-coaching peers. We hiked up and down the valleys beneath the easily recognizable Matterhorn and the massive and sprawling Monte Rosa. We skied on the Klein Matterhorn, and I was constantly mesmerized by the three dominant colors of the landscape: the perfect cerulean blue above, the dazzling and nearly blinding white of the snow fields and mountain peaks, and the verdant green fields and trees spreading out below and off to the sides in shades of mint and pine. It looked exactly like every postcard I’d ever seen of the Swiss Alps—except life-sized and far more stunning.

When our coaching duties ended each afternoon, we sat back in reclining chairs on decks and porches in the late afternoon sun to dry our sweaty t-shirts and prop our hiking boots and finally rest our now amazingly toned and tanned calves. We drank big frosty mugs of beer—and in the evenings after the campers were checked into their chalets and hotels, we coaches sang and drank tequila and joked and flirted and played darts and danced and laughed. On a few occasions in mountain restaurants we tried local fondue and Raclette and strange fruit liquors with names like kirsch and pflümli. One night in the North Wall Bar, I bought a yellow t-shirt that said “Just do it—in Zermatt.” Most of all we had fun. We were young; we were healthy, and we were being paid (albeit not much) to coach skiing in the Swiss Alps. How could we not be deliriously ecstatic?

Just days into my adventure, I could no longer imagine what I’d been so wrapped around the axle about. None of my fears came true. Sure, there were more high-powered ski coaches, but there were also some with less experience. I wasn’t the most fit, but I was fit enough. I made it through the first days of blisters and sore muscles, and after about a week, I was pretty certain that Zermatt was the coolest place on earth, and I was absolutely certain that I was the luckiest human on earth.

When my coaching session was about to end, a few of my coaching peers (three deliciously handsome, tanned guys, who made it tough for me to decide which one I had a crush on) were trying to figure out how to scrape together enough money to extend the trip by a week. Somehow I was invited to be part of this little adventure, which involved selling ourselves as super cheap manual labor to a man named Isadore Summermatter, who ran a mountain restaurant called the Jägerstube in a hamlet called Zmutt. (I’m really not making this up.) Anyway, Isadore liked us, so in exchange for us helping to bring in his hay, he agreed to provide us with food, drink, and a place to sleep in a loft above his restaurant for a week. He had a group of friendly guys from what was then Yugoslavia who were really responsible for the haying; we were just there to help or to “clean,” as Isadore put it, once a hayfield had been cut. Cleaning meant raking all the bits that were left into neat little piles that could then be picked up and put up in the hay barns. Of course, with what we ate and drank that week, I think all we really provided Isadore was of entertainment value, but he seemed to enjoy our company. And at the end of the week, we hiked down into town and caught a train back to Zurich to fly home.

My Zermatt experience was—at the time—the most extraordinary and inspirational thing I had done, and it succeeded primarily because of two things: first, R.B. absolutely insisted that I apply. And second, I had at least enough good sense not to turn down an opportunity so exceptional that to this day it still sounds far fetched. Despite my misgivings, I said “yes.” I got on the plane that led to the train. I laced up my boots, and I went. At other times in my life, when the goal has not been quite so tantalizing, I sometimes fear that I have played my life a little too safely—listened too much to nagging fears and doubts. But when I look back, though not every leap yielded the same superb results, and even the Senior Scholar program ended up being less than an ideal fit for me, the very best experiences of my life have unquestionably been the ones where I have jumped at a chance to do something spectacular, and I’ve worried about the implications later. Four instances come to mind immediately. Swiss Challenge was definitely one. Signing on to cook aboard the windjamming schooner, Nathaniel Bowditch, was another. Sending a letter to a friend and fellow Colby grad, Matt Murphy, who was and is the editor of WoodenBoat Magazine, was the next: a move which resulted in the greatest summer internship of all time. And finally, saying “yes,” to taking the offer of a last-minute vacant spot on a helicopter hut trip to telemark ski in the Monashee Mountains in British Columbia, Canada.

Now my question to you is this: When have you taken a leap of faith and said “yes” to a dazzling opportunity and only worried about it after making your commitment? Positive or negative, I’d love to hear your stories. I want to better understand how we make the decisions that shape our lives. Please feel free to leave your comments right here on the blog, and I hope to hear from all of you soon!

P.S. For all of you boat fanatics like me, Brian and I met a fun and friendly guy who is captain of the sailing vessel Surprise: You can check out his blog about boats, wooden boat building, and travel here:

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