Doing things I’m terrible at

May 2013

I spent last school year (‘12-‘13) doing almost entirely things I was “good at.”

This was a pretty novel experience for me. During middle school and high school I expanded my boundaries a lot. Starting out as a shy and awkward introvert with an aptitude for math and not much else, I tried out, among other things, actually working in school; relating to other people; taking up a sport (fencing); studying the humanities; and learning to contra dance (with varying levels of success). All of these would have been terrifying prospects to seventh-grade-me.1

When I got to college, some kind of switch flipped in my decision circuitry. The logic went something like this: “Man, this Growing As A Person stuff is really great to have gone through, but it’s kind of a drag. And I’ve done a bunch of it already, and anyway the real world doesn’t care how self-actualized you are, only how well you can do stuff you’re good at. Stuff that; I’m done with exploring then. Time to optimize at what I know!”

To be fair, it was a relief not to worry so often about whether my schoolwork would come out all right, or compare myself as much to people who were completely out of my league of competence. But at the same time, pushing steadily forward my knowledge on math and computer science, day after day, became a bit boring, compared to throwing myself at a contra dance or a fencing bout or a difficult English class and trying not to look completely foolish.

So I’m done with that. This summer I’m going back to doing things I’m terrible at. Blues and swing dancing, for instance: they look like they would be tons of fun if I could stop sucking at them. Maybe I’ll try to teach myself a portable instrument, since I have no roommates to subject to my practicing. (If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!)

Some people say that you should always try to have one thing you know you’re really great at, so that doing it will always make you happy. If you’re like me, you might also want to always have one thing you’re really terrible at. There are times when you just need to do something you love, but there are also times when nothing beats the rush of feeling yourself improve–looking at what you used to do three months ago and thinking “wow! I’m so much more awesome!”

  1. Seventh-grade Ben, as essentially the nadir of my existence, earns the dubious honor of being the baseline against which other iterations of Ben are calibrated. 

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Pick up the harmonica! It’s cheap, really portable, and versatile enough to cover camp songs/classics/pop songs. I’m trying to learn it this summer for the same reasons as you.



This is similar to what I did with my majors in my first year - I picked one that I was exquisitely confident in my abilities in, and one which I was singularly awful at (math). I do think that it’s important to do this only with things that you just haven’t done, rather than things you are naturally bad at. The continuing rush you get from improving in new areas is very important - if you get ‘stuck’ doing lots of something with no progress it can be very depressing.



We have some instruments we lend out to people - probably some penny whistles and a harmonica and a bad concertina. Let Jeff or me know if you want to borrow one.