There is a mysterious quote, the origins of which are largely unknown, but that’s often attributed to the late literary icon Kurt Vonnegut. So the largely unverified legend goes: When Vonnegut was a teenager, he realized something important. He was 15 years old and working on an archeological dig, when one the archeologists inquired about what he liked to do, apart from unearthing fossils.
Vonnegut replied with a host of extracurriculars—violin, choir, theater, but no sports—that impressed the archaeologist. The trouble with it all, the teenager noted, was that he wasn’t good at any of them. Then, the archaeologist uttered a few sentences that altered how Vonnegut would ultimately approach life.
Here’s how the encounter unfolded, per the author’s recollection years later:
He said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: ‘I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.
Whether or not this story is ultimately a myth, it does still smack of a distinctly Vonnegut-ian flavor, as the author advanced a similar sentiment later in his life. And it’s something that should apply to anyone who dabbles in activities beyond the realm of personal comfort. The idea that it’s not bad—and possibly even a good thing—to not excel at something can help shatter the notion that any pursuit must be a means to achievement.
Why do we constantly feel the need to achieve?
It’s a simple question that merits pretty thorough scrutiny, but one easy answer is that achievement, whether it’s personal, career-related, athletic, or otherwise, is venerated and celebrated in mass media. LinkedIn is cluttered with users trying to make a splash with their career milestones; athletes are lionized alongside rockstar CEOs; magazine spreads tout the lighting-quick success stories of tomorrow’s corporate leaders.
This kind of adoration for high achievement can trickle down to the way everyday people feel about taking up hobbies. There’s something of an epidemic of perfectionism in the United States, meaning that the casual golfer isn’t just heading to the course for a leisurely game—they’re studying, training, and yearning to perfect their technique, to become the best they can be.
The writer Tim Wu got to the heart of this issue in 2018, noting that many people are fearful of taking up hobbies, largely because they view the stumbling blocks of learning as a failure. He wrote for the New York Times:
But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation—itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age—that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can invoke Vonnegut, or at least refer to his teenage epiphany, when you get discouraged about not being absolutely brilliant at a given hobby.
Why it’s good to be bad at things
There is definitely merit in striving; it’s good to feel like you’ve accomplished something and that hard work you put in receives a pay off in the form of proficiency or even mastery.
Per Vonnegut’s telling however, it can be incredibly freeing to shed the expectation of mastery. Creating for the sake of creation, writing for the sake of writing, and trying for the sake of trying, is all invaluable grist for the spiritual mill.
Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
For anyone hesitant to start something new, or throwing their hands up in frustration because they haven’t mastered painting, or knitting, or how to play a pentatonic scale on guitar, it’s important to understand that it’s good to be mediocre at something you care about. Why? Because it shows your commitment to enjoyment—and an understanding that you deserve the flexibility to go easy on yourself.
So instead of despairing in your inability to master a craft, think of why you sought it out in the first place. The motivation underlying anyone’s pursuit of a new hobby is curiosity and the possibility of gleaning pleasure. And if you do truly derive pleasure from something, being good at it won’t make a difference either way.