I am a mediocre musician, but I used to be a dedicated one. I played classical viola from fourth grade through graduate school. After graduate school, I picked up Irish fiddle and played in a weekly session until my first child was born and life interrupted serious pursuit of a hobby. Now that my kids are older, I harbor hopes of playing again. I miss the fun and relaxation of making music, but more than that, I miss the constant practice of being bad at something, working at it, and getting better.
I have long credited my experience in music with saving me from the fear of failure that often afflicts people who were academically talented as children. I don't remember struggling with a school assignment until I showed up at college, but I have many memories of struggling with a piece of music. Years of practice made me a better musician, but as I improved, the music I was asked to play got harder. That gave me near constant experience with sucking at something and then mastering it through effort.
The experience of initially failing miserably never became pleasant, but I did develop confidence that if I just kept going, I would get better.
Years later, I read about Carol Dweck's work on mindset, and I better understood the gift that my years of being a so-so musician had given me. She emphasizes the importance of a “growth mindset” — the belief that abilities can be developed through practice and hard work, rather than being inborn fixed attributes. Too many gifted children, she says, come to think of their intelligence as a defining attribute of who they are, and become afraid of doing anything that might show they are not as intelligent as people think they are. Furthermore, when faced with an academic challenge that they cannot immediately master, they may experience something like a catastrophic collapse in confidence and struggle to recover from it.
I clearly remember my first experience with a real academic challenge. It came in my first quarter in college when I was — for the first time — struggling to earn an A, and not just in one course, but in both calculus and chemistry. I do not know if I consciously drew on my years of experience with struggling to master a piece of music but, in retrospect, I applied the same techniques. I figured out how to practice better for my exams — that is, I figured out how to really study. Once I did that, and my grades improved, I realized I could conquer most things if I was willing to put in the work.
I won't pretend that I didn't seriously consider transferring to an “easier” college. Luckily for me, my more intense studying started to pay off before I could act on those thoughts. That initial period of struggle was probably one of the most formative periods in my early career — but only because I persevered. And I firmly believe I did so because I had some prior experience with the feeling of being bad at something, and I knew that practice could make me get better.
The ability to keep going through the initial period of incompetence is like a muscle. It will atrophy if you don't use it. And if you exercise it, it grows stronger. However, as we advance in our careers and get more and more specialized in our focus, we have fewer naturally occurring opportunities to suck at something. Most of every day is spent on things we are already good at.
That’s only natural. As we get more experienced, we get good at more things. But I think there is a profound risk in this. If we allow our I-really-suck-at-this-and-that's-OK muscle to atrophy, we may become less willing to try new techniques and explore new fields. Our work can get stale.
My solution is simple: I seek out ways to practice sucking at things. Maybe soon, I'll figure out how to arrange our household schedule so that I can get back to the hobby I originally sucked at — playing my viola or fiddle again. In the meantime, I look for things that can fit into the schedule I currently have.
Right now, I spend most Saturday mornings watching my daughters at their gymnastics classes. One of the other moms there often had a crochet project out, and worked on it while she watched the class. I realized that was the perfect pastime for me, too, so I started teaching myself to crochet. My first effort was downright laughable. My second effort was only marginally better. On my third effort, I managed to make something that became a credible sleeping bag for my daughter's stuffed bear. That success made me overconfident, and I bought yarn that was too difficult for me to work with. I am about to abandon my fourth project, go buy some easier yarn, and try again.
Of course, it is easier to accept that I suck at crocheting — which is not relevant to my chosen career — than to take the risk of sucking at a new skill I can apply in my professional life. But as I learned in college, the method of getting past the initial “I suck at this” phase is the same, and while the skills are different, the practice of pushing through the discomfort of being really bad is the same.
So I don't consider my soon-to-be abandoned crochet project a waste of time. I was exercising an important muscle