The Worse I Am at Something, the More I Enjoy It
(aka How a Perfectionist Mantra Kept Me From Experiencing Joy)
Growing up, I enjoyed writing; I penned an entire sequel to The Neverending Story in 4th grade (this is before there was an actual sequel). I wrote angsty poems and filled journal after journal with plans for my grown-up life. Because I enjoyed writing and had a knack for it, my parents told everyone — and I do mean everyone — “Christina’s a writer.” Being told from such a young age that I was something (writer), I believed that I was a writer. Not that writing was something I was good at. Or something I enjoyed. But that it was an activity that was inherently intertwined with who I was as a person.
When I would show interest in a different hobby (at different points, I wanted to take up spying, calligraphy, painting, guitar, and skateboarding), my parents reminded me that what I was good at was writing. This secured a fixed mindset, which is when you believe that the basic qualities you possess, like intelligence or talents, are simply are what they are and there’s no changing them. The opposite — and healthier, more productive — mindset is a growth mindset, where you believe that talent and smarts can be developed.
Part of my fixed mindset as a child was centered around a phrase my step-dad played on a loop: anything worth doing is worth doing well. This was said by Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, whatever that means.
Throughout my life, this has been somewhat of a perfectionist mantra for me, a way of opting myself out of pretty much any activity I didn’t think I’d be stellar at. If I’m not going to do it well, why do it at all? After all, I’m a writer, not a baker, not a guitar player, not a calligraphist, and certainly not an artist. Thanks to my anxiety and my tendency to base my self-worth on how productive I am, this caused so much pain and confusion. I wouldn’t let myself try anything new, but I also wouldn’t let myself be ok with not trying anything new — a vicious cycle.
What I can see clearly now is how detrimental that mindset was to my mental health and my overall enjoyment of life. Because I was sure I wouldn’t ever be good at anything I wasn’t already good at, I very rarely tried to do anything new. Since I wasn’t trying new things or developing new skills, I felt chained to what I was already good at — writing.
Fast forward through years of this (I’ll spare you the tedium of the circular thinking that always landed me back at square one), and I now hold a different mantra: anything worth doing is worth doing badly. This quote, by G.K. Chesterton (if you haven’t heard of this dude, check out this self-named site that talks about what a literary badass he was), changed the way I approach everything.
I no longer avoid meditation because I can’t sit still for 20 minutes. 5 minutes is fine. Hell, 2 minutes is fine. Meditating poorly is better than not meditating at all.
I often sit on my living room floor with acrylic paints from Target and create abstract pieces of art that ultimately end up in a pile next to my craft supplies. My paintings are no masterpieces; they are poorly done and one of my favorite ways to relax.
This concept can be applied to practically anything.
What is it you keep stopping yourself from starting because you don’t think you’ll be good at? DO IT. Do it terribly. And you probably will be very bad at it. Do it badly anyway. And do it again and again and again, as many times as it takes to either no longer be bad at it or be ready to try something different (both options are totally valid, not everything has to be a forever thing).
My biggest takeaway is that by letting go of perfectionism, I’ve been able to find joy. I still like to write but it’s not an activity I identify with down to my very core. It’s just something I do, not who I am. I haven’t yet taken up spying or skateboarding but I regularly paint, meditate, bake, and try new hobbies that pique my interest. In allowing for imperfection, I’ve been able to find deep satisfaction and fulfillment in my creative life. In fact, the worse I am at something, the more I enjoy it — there’s no pressure to be great at it or do it well. The only requirement is doing it.