The Five Stages of Sucking At Things

I have a confession to make. I am a terrible dancer. I can’t waltz or swing or tango. Whenever I try to do any of that stuff I get all flustered and confused. Toes get smashed, things that shouldn’t get grabbed during a waltz get grabbed during a waltz. It’s awkward and embarrassing.

But, when I am alone in my basement working out with my tunes cranked sometimes the music will hit me and between sets I’ll just start moving, completely uninhibited. There is no one around to watch me, no one to judge me except me. I move naturally, in sync, expressive and it doesn’t matter how it looks because it feels good. It feels free. I am Beyoncé.

I couldn’t always do this. I used to have absurdly high standards for myself. I had to approach everything as if it were my profession. Never could I be silly, unless I was competing with myself for “best at silly”. Never could I let someone think I wasn’t the best or that I didn’t know everything. It was really exhausting.

I still don’t Beyoncé in front of people but I can at least do it on my own. And I can admit to you and everyone that I Beyoncé sometimes just because it feels good. One of these days I’ll get even better at not giving a fuck and post a video of my self popping and locking to 90s german techno (feel free to hold me accountable to this statement).

And there are even more things I suck at. My cakes are mediocre. I plan boring dates. Despite growing up around lakes and rivers, I am not a strong swimmer. I frequently don’t know when to end a joke and I can’t ever seem to get the hang of folding towels or shirts. Oh, and don’t get me started on particle physics, classical piano, foreign languages and hedge funds.

As it turns out, the world is full of stuff I will never be good at. Stuff I will, in fact, never even begin to understand. What’s an overachiever to do? How does someone with a ceaseless compulsion to know and do everything grapple with such a horrible realization? Not easily. Not for me. I had to do it in phases. Stages one might say. Some suspiciously familiar stages.

Denial: “Of course I can do everything.”

I literally thought this in my youth. Never mind logic. That feeling of limitless possibility adolescents have manifested itself as the belief that I could master any skill. I was going to go to Spain and find some gypsies that would open their hearts and teach me flamenco. I was going to develop a new database technology that would lead to advances in AI. I was going to start a utopian commune and spark a transformation in human society. Any of these were possible and all were possible simultaneously. Oh, hormones, you crafty bastards.

Anger: “That’s bullshit. The world is bullshit.”

When I started to run into roadblocks like having no money, no formal education and being emotionally immature I rebelled against the very idea of being good at things. I rejected skill and mastery in the arts. I told myself that audiences were all assholes. I created intentionally alienating, messy, random, harsh music and sought opportunities to share it in public spaces. I looked down at the educated, the financially successful. I used my considerable knowledge of computers to make arcane, conceptual art while I worked as a cook.

Working menial jobs and making noise music is awesome, if that’s what you want to do. I was, however, lying to myself. I told myself that I was a champion for the marginalized, the impoverished, the weirdos. This was not true. I am a weirdo for sure, but this romantic idea was simply a justification for my rage at a society — a universe, really — that didn’t meet my absurdly high expectations.

I became pretty self destructive at this phase. My anger at the world was really anger at myself, and disappointment and shame. I did a bunch of risky things and treated my body like crap. Any opportunity to check out of everyday consciousness I took. Luckily, I didn’t get hooked on opioids or crack. Not everyone I knew was so lucky. Looking back, things could have turned out considerably worse for me. The damage was still pretty tremendous and it took a long time to recover. A good therapist is worth their weight in gold if you can find one and afford their weight in gold.

Bargaining: “What if I just do this one thing really, really well?”

The years of therapy brought me some perspective and an understanding of where some of the crazy expectations came from (thanks, mom and dad), but the overachiever beast was still there.

My next attempt to be the best at everything involved some clever mind games. I started playing with philosophies that would allow me to achieve mastery of the universe without having to actually learn how to do everything.

I was in less denial at this time. I was willing to accept that there were certain limits. But only certain ones. I constructed beliefs that all centered around the idea that being a master at one thing would make me a master at all things. Something about a fractal universe, beginner mind, kung fu, zen, that sort of thing. This went on for an embarrassingly long time. All the while I was ignoring my increasing anxiety and social isolation.

Depression: “My life is over and meaningless and boring and stupid.”

I became depressed. For a long, long time. I found myself in a life that had no resemblance to my fantasy world. I had a mortgage, a kid, an overly demanding job and a failing relationship. Not only was I not going to be able to master everything, I wasn’t even going to master one thing. The idea that had propped up my hope disintegrated. I gave in to despair and wallowed in the idea that I was doomed to mediocrity, frustration and meaninglessness.

I got stuck here for a long time. The lack of an inner direction ate away at me. I went through another period of self-destructive behavior. This time less angry and more socially acceptable. I smoked and drank a lot. I gained a ton of weight. I worked way, way too much, stopped all hobbies and spent no time with friends.

Eventually, I hit a breaking point. I was so burnt out I could hardly get anything done. I found out the startup I had poured my life blood into was no longer solvent when it stopped paying my health insurance. I was having frequent, painful fights with my partner and she was miserable and on the verge of leaving me. I had no identity other than work and work was ending. Turns out, this was exactly the kick in the ass I needed.

Acceptance: “Ok, fine. Limits exist.”

I was ready to change, ready to listen to advice. I started by listening to my partner. I quit my startup job and started freelancing and generally working less. This alone did wonders.

I also became a self-help addict, blindly searching for a step up that would hold my weight. I started eating better, getting up early and running. I went back into therapy and began to truly confront my childhood trauma for the first time.

This, too, almost wrecked my home life. It was an intense process that often left me in a regressed state, acting like an angry or hurt adolescent. I was not a fun person to be around. But I didn’t care. I was finally being honest with myself and I had a conviction that the only way forward was through all this painful crap.

I began to approach my life more realistically. I accepted that there are limits to what I can do, to what everyone can do. I began to develop true compassion for myself and therefore also for others. I had not realized before how self-centered and guarded I was and how that affected my well-being and that of the people around me.

Anyway, there is a lot to say on the topic of healing. The upshot is that I reached a place where I could give myself permission to explore the world without the pressure of being perfect or at least achieving some tangible goal. This attitude did not solve my lack of focus or direction and it didn’t give me an identity but it did create the space necessary to create those things.

So, What Next?

My interests are still splintered in a million directions. I tried to suppress this part of myself for awhile but it didn’t go away. The world is god damn amazing and I want to experience as much as I can. Inspiration and curiosity can easily turn into unrealistic expectations if you let them but it turns out you actually can do nearly everything as long as you are happy doing it badly.

I putz around in my makeshift basement workshop learning to use hand tools to make things out of wood. Sometimes I have an idea for a song or a sound and I’ll bust out the modular synth and record something. I brew terrible beer and surprisingly delicious mead, inexpertly execute recipes from all over the world, plant a garden and watch most of it wither, learn just enough about wilderness survival to maybe not die right away, speak Spanish like a 5 year old, study Italian 38 minutes a month, speculate in cryptocurrencies, read research papers on music, machine learning, robotics and agriculture and understand just enough to bullshit my way through a conversation or, if I’m lucky, ignite someone else’s curiosity.

The list goes on and there are many more things I want to do than have done and so much more I can learn about enjoying what I already do. Good luck unpacking that last sentence.

Hopefully this has been an entertaining read and maybe useful to fellow recovering overachievers. Let’s just putz around together because life is too short for getting shit done.

Image credit: surtr on flickr

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