A few weeks ago, I decided to ignore the nagging voice in my head insisting that I do homework and spend some time relaxing in the sun. To distract myself from the fact that I would be doing this alone, I pulled out an old notebook, grabbed a pencil and drew something. In particular, I decided to draw The Octagon — not that you would know that by looking at the result.
See, my drawing skills are elementary at best. By that, I mean that if my drawings were mixed up with an elementary schooler’s, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. But that’s okay! I didn’t sketch The Octagon to make beautiful, well-composed art. I didn’t even do it to practice, since I have no intention of ever becoming a “good” artist. I sat in the grass drawing that day because it was simply a relaxing way to spend time.
That’s the same approach I have to playing the guitar. My Monday and Wednesday schedules are jam-packed with classes and meetings that start in the morning and go past six in the afternoon. In between all of those Zooms, I like to take out my cheap guitar and just play. I don’t care what I play, and I know that it generally sounds horrible. But it gives me a chance to be creative, and that’s what matters.
At Amherst, we focus a lot on being exceptional. Here, it’s easy to find an exceptional person for basically anything you can imagine. Some of my friends have the silkiest singing voices that I’ve ever heard, and others can precisely explicate this or that organic molecule from just a name. All of this knowledge and skill is great because there are few things better than seeing someone excel. The only problem is that amidst all of these exceptional people, it’s easy to forget that it’s okay to be bad at things.
Life isn’t about being the best or brightest, as much as the American meritocratic myth would like us to believe that it is. I don’t claim to know what life is about, but I know that it isn’t that. It’s alright to want to excel, but if you limit yourself to your skills, you miss so many chances to live a full, creative, and curious life.
Whether it’s drawing, singing, sculpting, playing chess, shooting hoops or basically anything else, doing activities that we’re bad at humbles us. It teaches us to appreciate the skill needed to bat .350 or write haunting poetry. Even better, doing things poorly gives us a chance to loosen up. If we go into an activity with no expectations, it’s impossible to be disappointed. In our capitalist hamster-ball of a world, we desperately need chances to have no-stakes creative fun.
This year, I’ve spent a lot of time pushing myself to try new activities, especially ones that I’m bad at. It isn’t always easy — I still can’t bring myself to dance around other people unless I’m boogieing in St. Paul’s swing caves. But I have taken up linocut, which is why I have a few butt-ugly prints of a house plant floating around my dorm room. And unfortunately for my neighbors, I’ve decided to intersperse my pitchy renditions of “Hallelujah” on the guitar with “When the Saints Go Marching In” on my harmonica.
I still have a long way to go in order to fully accept my own lack of skill. It certainly isn’t easy all of the time, and I suspect that this will be a life-long journey. But so far, I’ve had a ton of fun. Every time I do something new, it’s like a long-dormant part of my body and brain wakes up. When I promise myself to forget about excellence, any stress or discomfort fades away. Something about being creative makes me feel fully alive even when I’m objectively terrible at whatever I’m doing.
I say all this even though I tend to hate using the words “good” and “bad” when describing skill. We can get better at anything with practice, and telling someone that they’re bad at something is a really good way of ensuring that you’re right. But we also need to remind ourselves that it’s okay to not improve — often, we shouldn’t want to! It’s okay to be a bad artist, singer or skater as long as we don’t let that stop us from drawing, singing and skating. That even includes my North Carolinian co-columnist, whose ice-skating is indistinguishable from a baby elephant’s trembling first steps.
If my co-columnist can skate, there’s nothing you can’t do. Don’t worry about being “bad,” and most importantly, forget improving. All of the stuff that you suck at — and trust me, there’s at least something — is calling your name.
Join me. Do what you’re awful at. You just might have some fun.