Saturday, February 20, 2016

The fine art of being bad at stuff

Let me start with a little story.  As a baby, my mom thought that maybe I was deaf, because I never babbled.  These days, we would have that kid tested and getting services so fast their head would spin, but this was the 70’s, era of kids bouncing free in the back of station wagons with no seatbelts.  It was a more chill time. 

Spoiler: I wasn’t deaf.  Eventually I talked, but only once I could say real words. No baby babble for me.  My first word was a perfectly identifiable, “meow” while my mom was reading the Three Little Kittens.

My little personality was already in there.  My tiny little baby perfectionist personality.

I hate being bad at stuff.

Here’s the thing though.  In order to get good at most stuff, you have to be bad at stuff first.  And you work on it, and practice, and get incrementally better at that thing until you no longer suck.  That’s how life works.  I would totally teach my kids that.

Except… I don’t do that myself.  I hide my badness at stuff.  I practice in secret until I can get all A’s.  Or, in most cases, I just choose stuff to do that comes easily to me.  I know how to learn and study, sort of, in theory. But I never really had to do it much.  Matrix algebra, a requirement for my statistics masters, was difficult for me. I cried, because I sucked at it, and I didn’t know how to get good at it. Through the magic of grade inflation, I still got an A, but I never really learned how to learn. 

I have a PhD and two Masters degrees, and I don’t know how to learn.  That’s not to say I didn’t learn things in school.  I did.  The most important thing I learned in graduate school was how to speak in public without vomiting.  I learned confidence in my intellect, how to speak up in a room full of incredibly intelligent people without questioning whether or not what I had to say was worthy.  I learned research design and analysis skills, how to develop and teach a course, how to write a grant.  I learned how to work on a team and how to manage people working for me.  I learned an enormous amount. 

But not in the buckle down, practice, be bad at stuff and then get better at it kind of way.

So here I am, at the ripe old age of 42, learning how to be bad at something. Specifically, I am learning to play the piano.  I am happy to tell you all that I completely suck at it.

I took lessons as a kid, but as soon as I couldn’t get a skill easily, I dropped it.  I played other instruments, and I guess I sucked.  I mean, at some points, I certainly sucked, but I didn’t really know I sucked.  The pieces we played in band were easy.  I didn’t have to practice that much to feel competent.  It might not surprise you at this point to know that when I auditioned for things, I hit the sight reading out of the park.  Consistently super high scores on playing stuff that required no preparation.  Abysmal scores on scales.  Because who wants to practice scales?  Not this girl.

But we have this beautiful piano that we got for free from a good friend.  And neither of my kids chose piano as their instrument.  And every time a friend or my brother would come over and play it, I would be so happy the piano was getting some love.  It almost made me cry.  My kids play around on it, and I taught them to read music on it, and how to find the notes of songs they know, but no one was playing it beautifully, and it made me sad.

At the same time, I found myself envying my kids their music lessons.  My fingers itched to try the violin or bass.  I wanted to be learning an instrument too.

So I decided to take up piano.  And boy, do I suck.

At the same time, I’m super proud of myself for sucking and continuing to practice.  I am progressing.  I can play stuff now I couldn’t play a week ago and couldn’t have dreamed of playing a month ago. 

My parents were here last week and I played one of the songs I’m working on for my mom.  It felt really weird.  When eight-year-olds play the instruments they’re learning and struggle with it or hit a wrong note, we expect that and we cheer for their progress.  It feels different as an adult.

Forty-two year olds are supposed to be good at stuff.  Forty-two year old piano players should not suck. 

Unless they’re beginners. 

My friends who teach music have said that adult beginners are the worst, because they expect to get good right away, and I can completely see it.  I’m embarrassed by how terrible I am at playing a simple melody on one hand and simple chords on the other.  I’m embarrassed every time it doesn’t sound like music. 

But I’m also incredibly proud of myself.  Proud of my progress, and the fact that I am practicing every day, and that I’m learning, finally, how to be bad at something and get incrementally better. 

That’s how you get good at things.  And I’m showing that to my kids too.  They see me sucking.  They see me practicing.  They see me getting better.

It’s not adorable when I’m bad at things the way it is when kids are learning.  But… in a weird way… I’m finding it kind of beautiful.  A new journey for me when I wasn’t expecting one.  A skill I thought was a bucket list fantasy that would never happen.  But it is happening. 


Suuuuper effing slowly. 

And it’s not cute at all.

But it’s awesome.