Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Fear and Learning - Cantering and Law School

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

IMG_0593 As those of you who tune in for what the ABA Journal quaintly refers to as my "off-topic" posts may be aware, I decided this summer to learn English style riding (horse, that is).  Let me make this clear.  Other than perhaps a ride on a carnival pony when I was little, my backside and a saddle had never been in any kind of intimate contact.  (If you have spent much time in Ann Arbor, you'll appreciate the following Carnak style joke from one of our Christmas skits in the Dykema office.  Answer divined by Carnak (waiving sealed envelope near forehead):  "Gallup Park."  Question (upon the opening of the envelope):  "What does Jeff think are the gear shifting markings on a horse?") [Joke explanation for the uninitiated:  Gallup Park is a municipal park that follows along the Huron River near the University of Michigan Medical Center.]

There are all sorts of analogies I could make here in terms of the learning process, but here I am about 17 lessons into this, and skiing is perhaps the best one.  Just as you progress in the mechanics of skiing from snowplow to stem christie to parallel turns (at least the way we used to get taught), and accordingly gain the ability to ski steeper slopes (from green to blue to black), in riding you progress "walk-trot-canter" (that oversimplifies it, but not unduly so).  It's hard to get too scared in a walk, but when a perky horse starts to trot for the first time, and you need to steer, control the pace, sit correctly, keep your heels down, keep your hands down and quiet, squeeze your upper legs, and keep your knees relaxed and your lower legs still, a certain panic may set in.  It's like pointing your skis down the fall line the first time, and then losing it as you begin to pick up speed and panic.

So today was a watershed because I cantered for the first time.  It's a little faster than a fast trot, but that's not the issue.  It just feels really different.  I was taught to get into the canter from a "two-point" position, which means that I'm trotting around the outside of the ring with my butt off the saddle, my back flat and looking up and outward (sort of leading with the chest, as it were), and my hands holding both the reins and the horse's mane.  I then give the horse a kick aftwards (to the back) with the outside leg (which I understand is telling the horse to lead with the inside leg, which is correct), and then . . . holy moses (or words to that effect) - I AM GOING TO FALL OFF THE FREAKING HORSE!  The natural tendency, akin to the fall line panic, is to curl forward which is exactly the wrong thing to do.  If you relax, look up, and get "taller", it feels pretty smooth and controlled.  The problem the first time is you don't know what it is going to feel like.  I can report success, however.  I did a nice canter down the long side of the ring, and then when I was later trotting in a two point (tapering off at the end of the lesson), the horse started to canter and I actually laughed as I brought her back to a trot and to a walk. 

One of my rationalizations for spending all this time and money (other than the fact that I really enjoy it) was better to understand learning from a student's perspective.  What really jumped out at me today was the relationship between fear and learning.  Often what you need to do is counter-intuitive, or counter to natural self-preservation instincts.  The first time is the hardest because you don't know what to expect, and the unknown is the most fearsome.  This takes me back over thirty-three years, but I can recall just how terrified I was of getting called on in John Kaplan's criminal law class (I had never before spoken aloud in class among all these incredible smart fellow students and the professor who seemed to be able to tie minds in knots), or the fear before taking the first set of exams in the first semester (which, by the way, were after the holidays just to make it worse). 

The fear sits out front like a barrier.  (Think of the vibrations Chuck Yeager experienced before getting to Mach 1.)  I don't think there is a significant difference between fear of physical injury and fear of embarrassment or public failure.   I am far and widely known as a physical coward (think Woody Allen).  You must push through it, because control, calmness, and the ability to function return on the other side.


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I don't suppose it's at all helpful to know that your daughter could canter on a horse when she was 8 years old.

Posted by: Arielle | Dec 15, 2009 1:43:13 PM

8 year olds don't break as easily as 55 year olds. And we are much higher off the ground. And we've had 47 more years to develop all sorts of irrational (and rational) fears.

But (a) you were really cute, and (b) I was and always will be proud of you for all the things you do so much better than I!

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 15, 2009 1:53:18 PM

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