Last year I started racing Cyclocross. It's a strange, fringey sport that is a challenging blend of road biking, mountain biking, and cross country running. I've been riding bikes my whole life, but have never raced -- so the learning curve in that first season was pretty steep. I was making lots of mistakes that are generally easy to avoid (and some that were pretty rare) including: Too much air in my tires (no traction), not enough air in my tires (pinch flats), starting in the middle of the pack (stuck in a traffic jam), following riders too closely (inhaling dust + mud / going over the bars), eating too much beforehand (nausea), not eating enough beforehand (nausea), losing track of the lap count (blowing up with 2 laps to go), passing someone without enough room (getting tangled in the yellow course tape), and many, many more frustrating, embarrassing, hilarious mistakes.
But, the more mistakes, the faster I get. I just had my first top 10 finish last week.
Races are typically on weekends from September through December. Whenever I think about my upcoming races, I get a little shot of adrenaline -- feel my pulse quicken and my stomach start to turn -- a primal, visceral reaction to the stress, suffering, and the next inevitable fuckup I am going to make. And it's like that all week, especially the morning of race day, where I feel like I won't be able to keep my oatmeal down, and right up to the moment I am in the start, with 30 seconds until the gun fires, at which point I feel completely calm and ready.
This visceral, sinking feeling in my gut is the same exact sensation I used to have before every single shoot, especially the big ad shoots where there were lots of people around, lots of money being spent, and lots of people to make happy. I'd lie awake the night before, my mind racing. We'd have delicious, catered food on set, and I couldn't eat a single bite. And I made my share of mistakes, including: Shooting empty film backs, not having enough light, having too much light, not bringing a tripod, not having a second tripod plate, not backing everything up, not planning for weather, not having a backup lens, booking the last flight out, cultural + language barriers, etc, etc, etc.
With all the extensive planning, expensive gear, and complicated travel that goes into a big shoot, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. And in my experience many have, but I've managed to work through them and learn from them. Now I sleep better, and actually eat on set. I still get nervous before (almost) every job, but have made enough mistakes at this point that I am comfortable making them.
Cyclocross has reminded me how important it is to spend time on the steep part of the learning curve. It's uncomfortable and it can hurt, but it's also where we get stronger, faster, and ultimately smarter.