The Simple Joy of Being Awful at Something

The Simple Joy of Being Awful at Something

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Confidence, Education

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.

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.

Your Turn

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?

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.

14 Comments

  1. Maryske says:

    Ha ha, that was a fun article! And I do like the idea of pine cone wars ;-)

    As for your question, I admit my instinctive reaction was that I’m good at everything that I like doing LOL, but it only took a few seconds to recall a few things that I enjoy doing even though I am no good at it. For example… ballet dancing… I’ve never had ballet lessons, but I love watching professional ballet shows. And sometimes, I’m just kinda imitating the moves – especially when I’m happy and alone. It’s fun – but I really have no idea how to dance ballet.
    I’ve also played football (soccer) for a few years. I enjoyed it a lot, but a) I was awful at the techniques, and b) although my overview from the TV’s point of view is pretty good, I really do not oversee the field (including where my fellow players and antagonists are, and possible openings) when I’m standing in that field myself. So I don’t think they missed me very much when I quit, and turned to postal/online football manager games instead. (Those are fun, too!)
    Another one is drawing. I’m not really bad at it, but definitely way below any level that would allow me to make money on it. But I do enjoy doing it nonetheless.
    And probably my most neglected one: building things. Anything. Doesn’t have to be big, but just coming up with an idea and then try and build it. Considering that I tend to go for the trial-and-error method, the results I do recall (just a handful) weren’t exactly serviceable, but that’s beside the point. The building itself is the fun!

    And do I want to improve my skills in those four? Um… no. Not really. Like you say: it’s fun enjoying those things without having to care about other people’s disapproval. I already know it’s pretty bad, so there’s no point in telling me ;-)

  2. Ian Thurston says:

    Joy!! In some things Be Good, in others, Be Present and damn the torpedoes. In all things, Live Life Out Loud, and remember that Work is Play for Mortal Stakes. Some of my fondest memories as a musician are the horrible miscues, atrocious “clams” and “we never should have started this tune, but let’s soldier on …” tunes. Remember the musician’s mantra: Wrong But Strong. And of course, It’s So Wrong It’s Right. Thanks Kristin

  3. Rae Marie says:

    This article was so perfect in its timing and so “thought-full”.
    I used to play the clarinet, flute, and bassoon. I always wanted to play the cello. I love the cello! So, I bought one!(years ago)! However, I found it was more difficult than I anticipated (of course). I still love it. Sometimes, I take it out, tune it, make some noise, and enjoy the challenge of it.
    I’m growing my business as an artist, specializing in pet portraits in pastel and truly love the joy of the process and presenting something that I know my clients will cherish for a lifetime. It encompasses a lot of time with painting, designing, marketing, accounting, etc. After reading this article, perhaps it is time to enjoy making noise again.

  4. Valérie says:

    Dear Kristin,
    Your article made me smile. Thank you for that. Personally, I suck at giving compliments. Not used to hear anything but being told off when growing up, giving compliments used to be totally alien to me. I have since decided to give compliments anyway whenever I find myself admiring skills, just because I want to. Even though it still makes me slightly uncomfortable.
    I think I suck at anything that makes me feel self conscious: dancing, speaking on a bad hair day, asking for help, the list is endless if you’re a perfectionist. Even though I believe I even suck at being that!

  5. Lyrae says:

    Hi Kristin…loved your article so much I forwarded the link to my art group to read! I found that I pretty much suck at everything new I try. I have to work hard at everything it seems before I can do it easily. Being intelligent isn’t always a guarantee of success. There are so many activities in life that require “hand-eye-body coordination”, good information, good tools/ingredients and at least two or more skills that need to be in the mix to be even marginally successful. I’m 67 this year and I’ve had a boatload of experience in both passive and massive failures! I wouldn’t trade even one minute because all of those experiences fed valuable insight into future decisions. Failure is not a state of being. To me, it’s a comedy word and should be replaced with words like exploration, discovery, experimentation. I know when to quit or actively improve my skills at something by how it feels. If I really want to do something that I suck at, I keep practicing and exploring new (but related) activities until I find my way. I’m old, so really bored with the same old stuff which makes new frontiers a joy to experiment with. Thank you!

  6. Adair says:

    Thank you for sharing this insight! I can not carry a tune at all. But I absolutely love singing! Singing makes me happy. It also lets me know when my soul is feeling content- I will catch myself humming or singing to myself and realize- ‘wow. I’m totally at peace right now.’ I suck at singing, but I sing anyway. I also stink at bowling, dancing and more often than I’d like to admit- standing upright. Think New Girl- “it’s happening”. But guess what? I continue to do those things anyway. I love your article because it validates the experience of just embracing the joy of doing something in absolute freedom. Free of expectations, free of fear of judgement, free of the pressure to be great at everything. Ah- I’m embracing my Id, my inner kid, my joy! And now, I think I’m going to go dance around my house while defying gravity and singing a little ditty.

  7. Sarah says:

    Success hangover! Yes! I definitely relate to that.

    Very good article (and possibly motivation to pick up my ukulele or guitar – neither of which I’m very good at, but enjoy)

  8. Micaelan Finnley Halse says:

    I enjoyed your post, and have shared it with my perfectionist tween daughter who is battling with anxiety. Thank you :)

  9. Derrick E Lively says:

    I’m a jack of all trades and a master at none of them. Although some say I’m good at some if those. However, I often compare myself with people who are experts in those skills and I find myself feeling somewhat inadequate. But, such is life as a multipotentialite.

  10. Jack says:

    I studied an IT elective in year 9… simply because I knew I’d be absolutely woeful and thought it would be a good idea to teach myself that I’m not good at everything! My photoshopped poster was shocking, but it was a net positive experience (something familiar about being out of your depth?). Did a similar thing with contemporary dance, but ended up dancing throughout high school and studying it at Uni for just over a year :) Time to find something else I’m bad at!

  11. Krista M says:

    This post is just great! As I pondered your question, I initially had a hard time thinking of something that I am awful at but enjoy anyway. It was as if my brain was protecting me from admitting that I am not always accomplished. Once I thought of one – riding a bike, the floodgates opened and I realized that I actually regularly do things that I am just not remotely good at.
    I did not learn to ride a bike until I was 25, and insisted on being taught the “steps” verbally instead of just trying it out. I never have gotten the hang of starting and stopping; I look so awkward that people have accused me of riding my bike while intoxicated. I look like a flailing new swimmer whenever I attempt an overhead crawl, and even though the rest of my family has an innate instinct for it, I cannot find a wild mushroom without it being pointed out to me. I still swim, and went on a solo mushroom hunt yesterday.
    The best bottom line for an activity is it resulting in a shrug and a smile.

  12. Kari says:

    This article made me smile. So often we push ourselves to be good at things…and many of those things we might not even enjoy doing. So it’s nice to sometimes do things that I know I’m not that good at ( some of them I am pretty bad at) and have a laugh along the way. Some activities include doodling, editing photos, writing stories, making travel videos. I don’t particularly care if I get better at any of these things…but I do know that they bring me joy so I’ll do it anyway.

  13. Viki A Kish says:

    Kristin, terrific article, especially the final sentence. :-) Like you wrote, it’s as if we need permission to engage in something we’re not good at or that can have a bottom line and “benefit.” I used to dance ballet but haven’t in 33 years and am starting over very slowly. Boy, do I suck, but it feels great! Thank you for “outing” the child in all of us, because that’s how we learn.

  14. Ryan says:

    I’m absolutely horrible at karaoke- at least the singing part- I can’t carry a tune to save a life but have good stage presence. Please join me at the PuttyTribe’s zoom karaoke and enjoy th show.

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