The Case for Being Okay With Being Bad at Things

Photo: Getty Images/Guido Mieth
I'm kind of a quitter. In middle school, I quit choir because I'm not a good singer. Quickly thereafter, I quit the violin because I'm—wait for it—bad at playing the violin. In high school, I quit soccer and track, and I bet you can now guess why. Throughout my life, I've grown skilled at knowing when to throw in the towel on pursuits that seem to be not much more than imminent dead ends.

Being bad at something makes me want to stop immediately, and even if I stick with it, it's with a begrudging attitude—just ask my trainer, who is forced to ignore my whines whenever he instructs me to run or do push-ups. But does only sticking with endeavors at which you excel preclude you from accessing a magical feeling akin to a runner's high that comes with improvement and growth? Or when you feel like quitting, is it okay to go that route? After all, if something doesn't make you happy, why shouldn't you just find the thing that can be your thing?

Well, when it comes to being big-time awful in any given pursuit, there are benefits to reap from simply leaning in and letting yourself be awful. "None of us is good at everything, so if you want to really love and respect yourself, you have to be comfortable being bad at some things," says therapist Aimee Daramus, PsyD.

In practice, though, being okay with mediocrity, or even a complete deficiency of skill, isn't an easy thing to accept. Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, who focuses on emotional well-being, says we can thank nature and nurture for this reality. "Culture is consumed with being an expert. Things we excel at, and therefore give us pleasure, cause the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which then gives us more pleasure," she says.

In addition to gifting us dopamine as a reward, the brain can also anticipate good vibes, according to 2013 research published in the journal Neuron. "It was believed that dopamine regulated pleasure and reward and that we release it when we obtain something that satisfies us. But in fact, the latest scientific evidence shows that this neurotransmitter acts before that—it actually encourages us to act," research author Mercé Correa, PhD, says in the report. "In other words, dopamine is released in order to achieve something good or to avoid something evil." That's why it takes more exerted effort see out tasks that don't cater to your skill set—the brain can interpret being bad at something as being, in a sense, evil.

"When you refuse to do anything you're not great at, what you're telling yourself is that you're only okay if you're perfect. That's going to lead to a lot of pain in life." —Aimee Daramus, PsyD

But none of that makes learning to be okay with not being a superstar at everything all the time any less worthy of being a goal. "When you refuse to do anything you're not great at, what you're telling yourself is that you're only okay if you're perfect," Dr. Daramus says. "That's going to lead to a lot of pain in life. If you can't cook a simple meal or take a photo without being upset if it's not flawless, you're going to hurt a lot of the time, so enjoying yourself, even if you're not excelling, is an act of profound self-respect."

Another reason to stick with something when you feel like quitting is that lacking skills can bring about a bonding experience. "Flawless people are hard to relate to," Dr. Daramus says. "If you want to have healthy relationships, you have to be willing to let someone see you from a less flattering angle once in a while so that they can trust you enough to be vulnerable and imperfect in return."

A simple way to learn to be okay with being bad at things when you feel like quitting is to adopt a pick-your-battles mentality. Start with something that's relatively crucial to your life. For instance, I'm an awful cook, which is a facet of my being that both embarrasses me and makes me feel not great. But nourishing myself healthfully and not decimating my savings on delivery charges makes cooking—even if that means cooking questionably edible meals—necessary. So, that's where I plan to start. For you, it might be running, romantic relationships, or anything else. It can be anything, but it certainly doesn't have to be all things. "You might have one or two huge passions in life that you can't stand to be less than stellar at, but you'll never be awesome at everything," Dr. Daramus says.

If you can find any tiny morsel of pleasure nestled within whatever activity you're bad at doing, focus on that, and you'll have an easier time continuing with it when you feel like quitting. "Take a form of exercise you're not great at," Dr. Saltz says. "Maybe it feels good because you’re staying in shape and is a stress reliever—it's something worth sticking with," Dr. Saltz says.

She's right. For me, it's Pilates, because each time I do it, I feel awkward, am confident that I'm doing each position incorrectly, and thus spend the entire class making the IRL equivalent of the line-face emoji at whomever among my friends dragged me there. But I go because I absolutely feel less stressed afterward. And, as Dr. Saltz reminds me, practice likely won't make you perfect but will almost certainly make you better. So, maybe it's time to resume my violin playing? (Sorry, neighbors!)

Boundaries? I don't know her. If that's also you, here are five tips from a psychologist on how to stand up for yourself. And here's a psychologist's take on why you should lean in to your bad moods

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