Being Bad Never Felt So Good

I’m terrible at many things that I love to do; snowboarding, taking photos of trees, paddling a canoe in sync with my mother...but I keep doing them because they bring me joy and take me to the places that I love the most, mountains, lakes and forests.

For some, if they aren’t naturally good at something then they give up, thinking it’s not for them. My son has been in that camp for a solid 3 years. If he isn’t good right away at something, then he gets mad and instantly gives up. But recently I realized there was more to it... I vividly recall attending a birthday party a few years ago held at a local YMCA. We entered the gymnasium and all the kids were playing basketball and having a great time. My son’s face fell and he looked nervous. He told us that he wasn’t good at basketball and didn’t want to play. Finally, we convinced him to give it a chance and he went out on the court to find some of his friends to play with. It didn’t go well, almost immediately there was a meltdown and we ended up leaving the party moments later. Although I threw and kicked the ball around a lot as a kid, I don’t do that a lot with my son. Scared that he wasn’t gaining those skills, I signed him up for after school sports once per week. For this entire past school year, every sports-day when I picked him up, he complains about how much he hates basketball and is terrible at it. Dodgeball is OK, badminton is fun, but basketball is the absolute worst sport on the planet. This summer we were hanging out with family members in an airplane hangar and it had a basketball hoop. My son, the one that hates basketball, picked up a ball and started dribbling. He took some shots. He made some baskets. Other family members joined him. He was running around, laughing and having a great time. Sean and I were both in shock on the side, completely speechless. I had a moment of confusion like my son had been replaced. When I got over the shock, I pointed out how good he was and asked him if he now liked basketball. He said not really. I asked why he was playing and he said because it was more fun when no one was forcing him to play or judging his performance.

It was astonishing to me how much better and confident he was at basketball in one year. I had this moment of being proud of him but also sad that the environment he is learning it isn’t fun for him. And I’ve been wondering what I can do to reduce the pressure, external or self-inflicted while continuing to encourage him to keep working on his skills. In addition to learning to read and write at school, are kids learning to compare themselves to others and encouraged to set impossibly high standards for themselves?

Myself, I have a love/hate relationship with running. I do it because I feel great afterward and I love running through the forested park. There’s a running group that I can join but I keep telling myself that I’ll join when my time is better. I’m so worried that I’ll be judged for not being good at running or holding the group back that I have self-eliminated myself from a supportive community that is probably the best way for me to get better. When I was my son’s age, for gym class we had to run around the school perimeter fence a couple of times. I remember that a boy I had a crush on was always first, he was the best at all the sports at our elementary school. On his heels was my neighbor, she was really good at soccer. They were natural runners and always had a smile on their face. I wanted to feel the ease that they showed instead of sporting a bright red tomato face. No one taught me how to get better at running, you just ran the allotted distance, were given your time and it was entered into the log. I just figured you were either a runner or you weren’t. In high school, there was a running team but at that point, I had given up entirely - that was for people who were good at running.

We have a friend that goes snowboarding for months on end in northern Japan. Every day he posts incredible photos of snow monsters and j-pow and his specialized boards. Some interests, like his, are seasonal and there is a considerable gap between stopping and starting. Progress made last time may feel long gone and you have to start all over again. Or you may have sustained an injury and can’t do what you used to be able to do. There comes a point where you have to stop beating yourself up.

What happens if we are bad at something in front of other people? There’s a chance that you will feel humiliated and judged and maybe even rejected. You may want to hide in a corner somewhere. But not doing it is far worse. When I recognize that I’m not pursuing something because I’m scared, I recite this to myself, you regret the things you don’t do more than than the ones you do.” Then I usually say, “fuck it” and jump.

In her book “(It’s Great to) Suck At Something,” Karen Rinaldi recommends doing something with the express intent not to get good at it as a way to separate yourself from the stress of perfectionism.  But the unspoken subtext to all of this is that our enjoyment of something is directly tied to our competence in it, as judged by others. If we’re not trying to be good at it, why do it in the first place? Purposefully not trying to be good at it removes that entire notion, leaving only our personal enjoyment.


Tara BrownComment