Allow me to list the short-lived pastimes I attempted and promptly deserted when I didn’t immediately excel: Pottery, softball, field hockey, surfing, violin, dance, designing novelty T-shirts, knitting, yoga, and, most recently, meditation. Easily embarrassed and uncomfortable asking for help, I’d rather drop a hobby than give myself time to improve. Mediocrity — or worse, actively sucking at something — feels gross.
“It shouldn’t,” says Thomas Curran, an associate professor in the department of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics and author of The Perfection Trap, “because that’s the normal and natural part of the learning process.”
Babies and children suck at, well, everything, because each experience is novel and perfection is hardly expected of infants making their way in the world. Kids also (ideally) exist in supportive environments where failure is encouraged and adults are quick to offer support, both literally and emotionally. Not yet burdened with self-consciousness or perfectionism, children try, fail, and try again.
Adults, on the other hand, are pressured to optimize their time and performance: Side hustles replaced hobbies, while social media perpetuates the myth of perfection. Anything less than excellence can be seen as failure. If you’re at all like me, you protect yourself from this vulnerability and avoid pursuits that might show a lack of competence.
Although sucking feels uncomfortable, we shouldn’t shy away from activities we enjoy simply because we aren’t great at them. As the season for new habits and hobbies approaches, put your self-esteem to the side, experts say, and embrace the suck. “You can do something for beauty and pleasure,” says Karen Rinaldi, the author of (It’s Great to) Suck at Something, “that doesn’t suit your ego.”
If you enjoy it, it’s worth doing — even if you suck
Despite surfing for over two decades, Rinaldi says she didn’t catch her first wave until five years in. What kept her going was her joy in surfing. If you find delight and satisfaction in an endeavor, a lack of progress shouldn’t prevent you from continuing.
Consider your motivations for picking up a new hobby, Curran says. Are you looking to project a certain image by learning to play guitar? Or do you have a passion for music? When you inevitably encounter hiccups in your burgeoning rock career, a genuine interest in the practice will be more motivating than how it looks to other people. “It shouldn’t really be about what’s the outcome,” Curran says. “What’s most important is you throwing yourself into the activity and you really engaging and embracing the learning process, the good and bad.”
There’s freedom in openly sucking, unencumbered by others’ opinions. Very rarely are outsiders thinking about your failures as much as you suspect they are, studies show. And if they are, they may offer support and assistance, Rinaldi says. “People are really generous, and they want to help you,” she says. Bullies and jerks will always exist, but don’t discount the kindness of others within the hobby’s community to come to your aid.
Partaking in an activity purely for the love of it helps you become less judgmental — of yourself as well as of others. “When you really are in the practice of sucking at something,” Rinaldi says, “it is very hard to look at other people around you and judge them.”
Just because you suck now doesn’t mean you’ll always be terrible
How you think about your abilities can affect your performance. There are two perspectives people take when it comes to success: growth mindset and fixed mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, you may believe you already possess all the skills and talent you will ever have and you may never improve regardless of your effort. Growth mindset is the belief that you can advance through hard work, support, and a different strategy. You may have a growth mindset in one area of your life (say, in regard to work tasks) but a fixed mindset in another (believing you aren’t creative). To foster a growth mindset, remind yourself that the first time you began any endeavor, you probably sucked, says Daya Grant, a certified mental performance consultant and neuroscientist. Then you got better.
As you learn and build skills, however slowly, celebrate those little wins, Grant says. Mastered a beginner stitch? Finally got your bread to rise after many attempts? Sketched a picture of your dog that actually resembles your dog? Take a moment to marvel at your improvements. “A win is a win is a win,” Grant says. “It doesn’t really matter to the brain how big or small it is.”
Set yourself up for these incremental successes by creating more “gentle environments” for hobbies, says Julia Leonard, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University. In a performance-based culture where effort is praised but not actually rewarded (for example, you can study hard for an exam and still fail), give yourself permission to start a new activity not because you want to be the best, but because making progress is inherently satisfying. Handle your ego with kid gloves and encourage yourself the same way you would a child. “I have work showing little kids are way more optimistic about their abilities than older kids and adults,” Leonard says. “They’re in contexts that everyone is just cheering them on all the time because they’re just so excited about growth. That’s the mindset we need.”
Feeling challenged isn’t a weakness, it’s an opportunity
A common perfectionist tendency is avoiding potentially challenging activities out of a fear of being seen as incompetent or less-than, Curran says. “The first instinct is to not show vulnerability, just in case other people are there, they’re watching or waiting to pounce,” he says. “So we play it safe, don’t we? We stick to what we know. We stick to what we feel like we’re good at.”
Discomfort when challenged is a sign of learning, Grant says. But if you love the challenge, enjoy the struggle, or find the repeated attempts at success meditative, embrace the fact that you may be doing the thing, whether it’s karaoke or surfing, well enough.
This reminder is one I’ll take with me as I embark on future endeavors where I may lack natural ability. Catch me at a pottery wheel or in the solace of my bedroom strumming my guitar. Or don’t. The results may not be pretty — and I do not care.