Winters in Port Albert involved more than absurd Christmas trees and half-naked wrestling matches in the snow. They also ushered in one of my favourite times of year: toboggan season.  

On one occasion, I remember trudging up a hill, my cheap plastic sled dragging behind me. My four-year-old cousin Ria — yes, the same Ria who would scream her head off for hours whenever we babysat her — walked ahead of me, toughing out the cold and the climb like a champ.

Suddenly, my Spidey senses tingled. Farther up the hill, I saw my uncle on his toboggan roaring toward us. Ria and I were off to the side, but some quick-fire calculations in my head determined that this February freight train was heading straight for us.

Now, I put my snow pants on one leg at a time like anyone else, but I knew at that moment Ria needed a hero to save her. I snapped into action with only seconds left before my little cousin became a speedbump. Grabbing Ria, who was light as a popcorn fart, I tossed her off the path … and directly into a bramble patch where she became tangled up in thorny branches.

Naturally, my uncle came nowhere near us. You’re welcome, Ria. You’re welcome.

In our family, being tossed into a thornbush is fairly mild compared to some of the other injuries endured on the toboggan hills. My sister Becky once suffered a massive concussion after slamming headfirst into a tree. And I ended up with thirty-six stitches in my leg after crashing my sled into the pointy end of a fallen log. At best, our tobogganing afternoons ended in tears. At worst, they ended in the emergency room. 

Our family’s competitive nature only increased the likelihood of these injuries. Indeed, every outing usually included multiple violent, full-contact, cry-home-to-mama toboggan races.

As a scrawny kid, I didn’t have a lot of weight to throw around. And as with the snowy gauntlet, I got roughed up quite a bit by my three big brothers, who delighted in knocking me off my sled or sending me flying off the edge of the hill and into the woods.

So on one chilly afternoon, it was business as usual as my brothers bullied me out of contention race after race. That is, until I got an idea. We lined up at the top of the hill for another race, and sure enough, I didn’t make it a quarter of the way down the slope before I was flipped off my toboggan.

However, rather than wallow in defeat with yet another face full of snow, I jumped to my feet and ran back up the hill. While the others were still duking it out downslope, I put my brilliant plan into action.

Before long, my brothers came trudging back up the hill to find me casually waiting for the next race. We lined up for another battle. On your marks … Get set … GO! I pushed off and started toward the finish line. Immediately, fists and feet were flailing as we jockeyed for position.

My brother Dan grabbed the back of my sled, attempting to send me into a tailspin.

Except this time, I was ready. Like a pilot hitting his ejector button, I leapt off of my toboggan.

In one fluid motion, I unzipped my coat and pulled free the Crazy Carpet sled I had secretly wrapped around my torso while the others were finishing their previous race.

Diving onto the plastic sheet, I torpedoed down the hill headfirst, crossing the finish line in first place. I made sure to throw in a braggy, over-the-top victory dance for good measure.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Race after race, I was attempting to win through brute force. And race after race, I was getting beat up by my brothers. 

It was only when I tried a new approach that I was able to break the cycle.

Rather than continue to hit your head against a brick wall, approach a problem from a different angle. Get creative. Find workarounds. Seek out a fresh perspective on the situation from an outsider. If I couldn’t out-muscle my siblings, I knew I’d have to outsmart them. It’s about understanding your strengths and using them to your advantage.

During my cancer treatment, I’m grateful my doctors knew how to think outside the box. When a particular approach didn’t seem to be working, they didn’t hesitate to try different ones — whether it was switching me to a new medication or changing up my meal plan to find foods I could tolerate better.

Because problem solving involves plenty of trial and error. The path to success is littered with mistakes. It’s built on failure and disaster. And it’s up to you to embrace those experiences as learning opportunities and use that hard-earned knowledge to move forward. 

It’s okay to feel bummed when you make a mistake or fail at something. But don’t let disappointment spiral into an unwillingness to try again. Besides making me cold, I knew lying in a snowbank moping about yet another crushing defeat wouldn’t do me any good. If I wanted to win, I had to get up, brush myself off and get my butt back up the hill. 

Because the next race was about to start.

Next: Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage