It’s Great to Suck at Something
Let’s say that you don’t already suck at something.
First of all: that’s delusional.
But even if it is somehow true, I’m going to show you how you’re missing out on something wonderful.
In this book, I’m going to encourage you to find and embrace something you suck at. I want to share with you just how great it can be to suck at something: to really, really struggle to do something unremarkable, uncelebrated, and without much to show for it. And to do that unremarkable thing with love and with hope in your heart. To do it with joy.
I know this joy firsthand because I surf, and I’m bad at it. Surfing isn’t a new kick, and it’s not a phase. I’m not in that honeymoon period of surfing when I’m trying it out, seeing if I’ll get the hang of it, romancing it. By any objective measure, it’s a big part of my life, and has been for a while. I’ve been surfing eight months out of twelve for seventeen years (and yes, to those devoted surfers out there reading this, you have every right to scoff). I’ve arranged my middle-aged life around getting in the water as much as I can. I chose a career path that would allow me to pursue it, risked hard-earned money to support it, and coerced my family into a lifestyle only some of us appreciate. And—I still suck at surfing.
But I love it. I think, in its way, it loves me back.
I have put so much of myself into the waves over the years, but no matter how much I give, I always get more back. It’s an unfair exchange—in my favor—and it has nothing to do with my aptitude.
You, too, have this potential to suck at something. It doesn’t take
anything more than just being yourself, having a bit of courage, a sense of humor, and a willingness to start something new, or to return to something old, to start growing again, even if the end result won’t get you in any record books. This book won’t make you a master of anything.
On the other hand, it won’t hurt your chances. A recent study whose results were published in the Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology found that
Nobel laureates “were significantly more likely to engage in arts and crafts avocations” than mere members of the National Academy of Sciences—who themselves were also far likelier to have hobbies than the public at large. There’s some politesse in that phrase “arts and crafts avocations,” so let me translate: these Nobel Prize winners like to do things like play the cello and do macramé when they’re not staring down microscopes. And no one is paying to listen to that music, or for their knotted wall hangings.
The very-super-seriously-successful suck too. They just do it intuitively. The rest of us have to figure it out for ourselves.
So what’s stopping us? Nothing more than the fact that sucking has a bad rap. It’s a reputation thing. There’s nothing inherently unpleasant about being substandard at something (think about it: how would our species ever have learned anything if that had been the case?). It’s just that our culture maligns and mocks ineptitude. So much of our public life is oriented around hiding our weaknesses or denying they even exist. Because we are so geared toward success and reward above all, we fail to set aside space in our lives to cultivate new talents and interests. That kind of cultivation will inevitably include fits and false starts. We’ll almost certainly look foolish. We’ll fail. And, so, too many of us skip doing it altogether.
When we approach something new, it seems like our first response is to try to dominate it. If we can’t, we ignore it. By ignoring it we solve one problem: we don’t have to be inadequate at something; but we create another: we diminish our own lives. We add another blank spot. Adulthood becomes a kind of accumulation of blank spots. A strategic anti-growth, surrounded by space we’re too scared to enter. All because we can’t stand knowing about something we won’t command. But if we avoid the
vulnerability of living in the space of the new and challenging, then we’ll get old and stagnant real quick.
I believe there’s an even better argument for living in that sucky space more often. I believe happiness itself is found in accepting, even dwelling in, what we fail to excel at.
This isn’t easy. We’ve all felt the particular pain and unhappiness that can make us uncomfortable in that zone between discovery of something that enthralls us and disappointment in ourselves as we fail to master it. Discomfort is the least of it. In this book, I make a case for discomfort. While it may sound counterintuitive right now, it’s where a lot of good stuff is hiding. Quitting before we even start is the tragedy. The other side of frustration and discouragement is tenacity and hope. Let’s live in the doing. The process itself is where we should find satisfaction. Success is a reward we should not come to expect. Once success is attained, if ever, we should be humbled by it.
In our workaholic, goal-driven, relentlessly meritocratic life we have gained so much but lost many things as well. Patience, humility, and self-awareness all get sacrificed in a uniformly goal-setting and -seeking life.
What would happen if we put the need for stroking and reward behind us, just for a bit, and faced the truth that we all suck at some things? If we’re honest with ourselves, we never have a good day if it depends on whether our egos get stroked or not. This doesn’t mean we have to deny the pleasure of knowing and appreciating our talents.
But we can bring this into better balance—I’m pretty sure we spend more than enough time hawking our strengths. Social media is all about it, and it’s a race to the bottom when it comes to our well-being. It turns out that when everyone just shares their very best aspects, it’s a lot harder to be satisfied with our own.
What would happen if instead we celebrated our failed efforts? Or got past celebration entirely, and just let ourselves live with ourselves: our complete, imperfect, untalented selves?
The fact is: there are few tasks at which any of us truly excel. By avoiding what we suck at, we’re unnecessarily avoiding so much of the stuff of
life. There’s so much more than just talent. Talent is certainly useful, and for many of us, it helps earn our livelihood. But there’s more to life than usefulness. What can talent teach us about determination? Or patience? Or willpower? Or peace?
Aptitude is easy.
The truly strong spirit pursues something that holds no promise of reward except for the fact of doing it.
Perhaps that strength is similar to what Josef Pieper, a German philosopher writing shortly after WWII, had in mind when he wrote his classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture, in which he said that “The idea of leisure is diametrically opposed to the totalitarian concept of the ‘worker,’?” and proceeded to celebrate human activity detached from so-called “social usefulness.”
Nothing is less socially useful to me than surfing. I don’t know if my board is the only thing that stands in between me and, say, fascism, but I think I understand what he means. My surfboard may be your guitar, or pottery clay, your putter, or bag of latex twisting balloons. The instrument or action is simply the means by which we practice transcending our usefulness. Whatever the tool or method, by allowing ourselves to suck at something, we will have more patience with ourselves for getting better at the things that really matter. Like being decent human beings.
That’s one mission of this book. We’ll rethink what we thought we knew about some of the basic building blocks of our lives: our free time, our work time, and the disproportionate science and vocabulary we’ve developed to speak about and understand those things. We’ll bust some of the myths that keep us from trying new things in the first place—the drive of perfectionism, the delusion of nostalgia, the lie of first-times, and all of those trivialized touchstones to which we grant meaning: “Do what you love, and you’ll never work again”; and “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
But, there’s more to it than that. I didn’t set out to write this book because surfing appealed to the contrarian in me.
In 2013, when I got back onto my surfboard three months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t thinking about productivity and how I might get back to work with more energy if I caught a few waves.
I wasn’t thinking about anything but being out there. Likewise, the second mission of this book is this: celebrating the life-making art of doing something seemingly irrelevant, especially when the rest of your life is being pulled toward one resounding, overwhelming, all-encompassing, and weighty relevance. Sucking at something can help us to reframe the most difficult moments of our lives.
Sure, I’ve gotten better at surfing since then, but even still—I can’t be clearer about this and once more for the cheap seats—I suck at surfing. And the joy I get from doing it is not contingent on rare moments of accidental accomplishments. The joy I get is the joy of trying. Success, when it happens, is a welcome reward, but it’s the wrong end of the funnel.
I don’t think my experience is so unique.
A little while ago the New York Times published a piece I wrote called, naturally, “(It’s Great to) Suck at Something.” At the same time, I posted a video of myself surfing—a video I have kept close for many years, because it’s embarrassing. See, plenty of people in my personal and professional lives already knew about my preferred pastime. And, well, I had to let them assume that I was okay at it, or even pretty good (a natural assumption to make based on how much time I’ve poured into it). So, the video was a bit of an admission.
Have you ever had a friend show up in your neighborhood, and you realize suddenly that you perhaps let that friend believe you were a little more put-together than you really are? And you’re kicking yourself that you didn’t bother to clean the gutters yet this summer, or take out the recycling, or do one of a million things you would have if you had known you were going to be on the spot?
This was like that, except I basically invited the world over, and the front door was rusted off its hinges.
And it’s one of the best things I’ve done in ages. I’ve heard from so many people, from readers all over the world, who were delighted to read my story. Not because they care about surfing (and, wow, some people have strong feelings about surfing!), but because it was a story about someone sucking without shame. Many of them were secretly sucking, too, and
it was great to hear there’s a burgeoning tribe out there. But I also heard from plenty of people who were not trying because they didn’t feel like they could. Now I want to invite the world through that rusty-hinged door and to the joys that sucking can bring, an invitation to try new things without the pressure of having to be any good at it. Who knows? You might stumble onto something for which you have innate talent that you never knew you had. But that’s not the end goal because there is no end goal, not even for the potential experts.
My story is not so unique that I should have gotten as much feedback as I did—and with this book I’d like to make it less unique. That’s really the biggest mission: I want to start a whole new bookshelf. A new genre of dinner table conversation. A new community.
We do not tell stories about sucking. I think that’s why so many people thrilled to mine. All of the stories we tell each other, from Hollywood to the hair salon, are stories about triumphs and upswings. When we do share horror stories, we tell them for laughs: Well, I won’t be going there again . . . I won’t be seeing him for a second date . . . I won’t pick that song for karaoke next time.
The implication is: How funny it was that, for a moment, my life was something less than perfect.
Our lives are far from perfect, except for fleeting moments when the perfect wave comes through, and your body and mind are both ready for it, and for a moment you hitch a ride on what feels like a ripple on the silk of life itself.
The rest is tumbling beneath the wave.
But there’s so much to celebrate in the rest of the stuff, in those billions and trillions of potential moves—we just need to start being willing to suck.
That’s three missions:
1. Suck passionately: To learn about the real tonic power of the pursuit of our passions, to see how our brains aren’t built for monomania, but for a full-spectrum life.
2. Suck unproductively: To investigate the special quality that studied irrelevance can have in our own lives, especially during times when the world would seem to be suggesting that we should only be focusing on what’s making us miserable.
3. Suck communally: To hear stories about sucking at something, and to start sharing your own.
My conditioning for sucking started before I learned to surf and comes as the benefit of a lifelong love and professional devotion of being a dilettante. As an editor, I rely on the expertise of others to deliver deep dives into subjects that I midwife into books. As a publisher, I launch those books into the world. The privilege of getting intimate with some of the greatest minds never grows old. Along the way, I’ve learned a little about a lot of different subjects. I get to be a skipping stone on the surface of life’s mysteries. It wouldn’t be too farfetched to say that sucking at things is my profession.
Curiosity and greed for learning keep me vigilant for the new insight, adventure, aha moment, and because of what I do for a living, I get to have them every day. This book is the happy mishmash of what (I hope) I do best, and what I do worst. In these pages, I look to the wonders of science, philosophy, literature, history, and culture, and talk to experts in those fields to help me unpack it all. Surfing and sucking at it is the foundation that keeps me grounded when my mind gets untidy. (Any avocation of your choosing can serve as a similar grounding.) In the end, I hope to shed some light on our experiences and offer some new ways of looking at things. Maybe we’ll even have a jolly good laugh at ourselves.
But before we head out into the waves, I want to explain what got me obsessed with this idea in the first place.
It started with an innocent enough question. My son Rocco was eight years old. At pickup outside of his school, I was chatting with John, another PS 41 parent. “So, how’s Rocco doing at school this year?” he asked.
It was a subject that was never far from my mind. Early in the new school year, we’d already begun the annual investigation into Rocco’s
difficulty with fine motor skills and with what we would come to learn as his struggle with sensory perceptions. The problem manifested in all sorts of ways, one being that he couldn’t write with a pen or pencil—at least not in a way that he, let alone anyone else, could decipher. He was supposedly old enough to have mastered readable handwriting and yet the skill eluded him. Typing on a keyboard wasn’t a problem, but writing on paper took such effort that it made schoolwork literally painful for him, and teachers had difficulty evaluating Rocco’s work. It caused enormous frustration for Rocco at homework time. One evening, as we sat at the dining room table trying to slog through his homework, he told me it actually hurt him to write, which in turn interfered with his thinking. We knew Rocco understood what was being asked of him, but putting thoughts through pen to paper stopped him cold. There were often tears.
“Oh, he’s having some trouble with his handwriting,” I told John. Rocco was standing next to me. He wasn’t embarrassed. He knew it as well as anyone. He nodded in agreement. “He’s trying,” I continued, “but writing causes him some stress so homework is difficult for him.”
John didn’t miss a beat. He smiled at my son, pushed his hands deep into his coat pockets, and looked up toward the heavens. “Oh, yeah, Rocco,” he sighed. “It’s so great to suck at something.”
Rocco’s worried expression melted away. He smiled. His face lit up with what I knew was a feeling of recognition and relief, the kind you feel when something old and beloved, something you thought you’d lost, suddenly falls out from deep in your closet and into your hands.
While Rocco didn’t have a choice but to suck at fine motor skills, it was the acceptance of his handicap—and the momentary celebration of it—that gave him the freedom to go forward as he is, not as he thought he should be.
A reflex benefit of this book will be to learn how to stop beating yourself up for sucking at some things you can’t help but suck at. But that’s not the main point. I want to inspire you to find something you love to do—even though you might suck at it—and to do it anyway as a way to joy. To celebrate not excelling as a path to freedom.
Over the last decade, I have found that people will bare their souls when given the opportunity to talk about failing at something important to them. It’s always a beautiful conversation. I hope this book encourages more of us to have these kinds of conversations with one another, to open a door of acceptance that we are all dying to walk through. Ultimately, it is about connection with one another, which can only happen if we first connect with ourselves.
Back to that fateful afternoon when I was picking up my son—it turned out John was right. But way more important than that, Rocco heard him. He still can’t handwrite worth a damn, but ten years later he became valedictorian of his high school graduating class without that skill.