Today I took a dance lesson on YouTube while making macarons in my kitchen. Both were a disaster. And both were highly enjoyable.
There are a number of things I’m good at, but probably a greater number of things I will never be good at, no matter how hard I’ve tried (which I admit, sometimes isn’t hard at all). Dancing, baking, poetry, makeup, crafting, singing. I’m objectively awful at all of these things. “You can get better,” a friend says when I tell her my baking skills make the contestants on Nailed It look like pastry chefs. “I’m sure it’s not that bad,” another friend says when I tell her my poetry is awful. I appreciate it: friends love us and want to protect us. They reassure us that we aren’t that bad and encourage us to get better. But why are we so afraid of being bad at things in the first place?
When I was a teenager, my best friend and I were running around our front lawn playing pinecone wars, which is pretty much what it sounds like: You throw pinecones at each other. We lived in a small town—there wasn’t much to do. It was dumb, but it was fun. When another friend of ours came over and saw what we were doing, she scoffed and asked whether we had better things to do with our lives. Somebody had probably asked her that question when she was goofing around, too. Get a job. Make something of yourself. Stop wasting time and do something with your life. At some point, we succumb to the idea that things are only worth doing if they have a bottom line. Everything becomes a project. We call it growing up.
If at first you don’t succeed, try again—because sometimes success isn’t the point.
This afternoon, I whipped up some egg whites and sugar until they formed stiff peaks and took an Insta video of the red dye swirling around the white foam. I knew very well it would probably end in disaster, but it was so enjoyable to watch the egg whites go from a runny mess to a fluffy pillow pouf—like magic. I folded in the almond flour and piped the mixture onto a baking sheet and waited for them to set. Meanwhile, I felt like dancing. I looked up a YouTube tutorial on how to dance to the Beatles and watched myself in the mirror and laughed out loud at my own ridiculous reflection. It feels good to indulge your talents, but there is a different kind of joy in being awful at something and doing it anyway. When you know you’ll never be good at that thing, you’re free to just have fun with it. You can just enjoy the process, even if you do look like an inflatable tube man during a tornado.
This same time last year, I was in the middle of what I called “post-project depression” and what author Kelsey Ramsden calls a “success hangover.” It’s the existential crisis that follows a major achievement. For me, that was writing a book. The morning my book published, I rushed to Barnes & Noble and when I saw my name on a bookshelf—a dream I always had—I thought, “Huh. I thought this would feel different.” But you’re more or less the same person you always were before and after you write a book, win an award, or whatever other successes you’ll achieve in your lifetime. During my success hangover, I realized that I put way too much stock in external success metrics. Sure, our achievements matter, but when you put so much emphasis on the finish line over the process, you might be confused when you get there and the moment is less grandiose than you thought it would be.
And that’s why it’s so luxurious to suck at things. When you truly suck at something, there is no use in setting a goal. Years ago, some friends and I had gone to a Girl Talk show where everyone jumped onstage. All of my friends found groups to dance with, and when I turned to a stranger with my own dance moves, he slowly backed away.
My friend thought this was hilarious and offered to teach me some basic dance lessons. He did his best, but after a couple of weeks, he said, “I don’t want to say you’re hopeless, but—” Reader, I was hopeless. And that’s okay! I continued to jump on stages and dance at concerts and try my best at karaoke because dancing is fun, even if you look like Elaine Benes on the dance floor. And hey, maybe I will get better someday. Maybe I’ll be a halfway decent baker someday, and maybe someday I’ll write a poem that makes someone smile, and not because they’re holding back laughter. But I’m not counting on it. It’s important to do things you’re bad at because those things come with no strings attached, no hope of monetization, or achievement, or success. We all need something like that in our bottom line-driven lives. (Although I do not recommend throwing pinecones at your friends.)
To be fair, there are good reasons to be afraid of doing things you’re bad at. It’s a waste of time, you’ll feel like a failure, you’ll embarrass yourself—all valid. But if you let go of the notion that everything you do has to be an accomplishment, there’s really no good reason why you shouldn’t do things you’re bad at and enjoy doing them, too. If at first you don’t succeed, try again—because sometimes success isn’t the point.
And those macarons may have looked pathetic, but that didn’t stop me from scarfing them down.
Readers, don’t leave me hanging. What activities are you absolutely awful at that you enjoy doing anyway? And how do you know whether you want to improve your skills or just let them be?