The Unbelievable Joy of Being Bad at Things

Rock climbing is my favourite hobby. And I’m terrible at it.

Photo: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash

I’m pretty sure I was a nightmare to be at high school with. I was that student. The overachiever. I was painfully academic and rarely ever got anything other than an A. I even petitioned for permission to do an EXTRA subject for my exams (mainly because I wanted to beat my brother’s results). I played a lot of sport, both team and individual, and by the way was musical too.

To be fair, I’ve always been pretty average at art, but I got by on being creative and having an ability to follow instructions. And promptly dropped it as soon as that was an option.

So I’ve gone through life being generally ‘good’ at things. Luckily a lot of those things are the same things that you need to ‘succeed’ in our current society. So perhaps it hasn’t been that noticeable that I’ve generally avoided anything I’m going to be bad at.

Until, that is, my partner got me to start rock climbing.

Honestly, I’m shit. All of the people I’ve ever gone climbing with have been much better than me, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. My coordination goes out the window and my upper-body strength is laughable. But the thing is, it really doesn’t matter.

Yes, at first I hated it. I did not deal well with being so bad at something. I even joined a bouldering wall without telling anyone so that I could practise among perfect strangers and hopefully make lots of progress. I was so determined that when I knocked a bone in my hand out of place I ignored it and continued climbing for several months before I got it checked out. Unsurprisingly this didn’t work well.

Now, however, I’ve come to accept that I’m not particularly skilled or talented at climbing, and that I might not ever get much better. And I’m happy about it. The thing is, I like it. I enjoy myself and I’m competent enough to not kill anyone I’m belaying. And that’s enough. Taking off the pressure to excel at things and to just enjoy them instead has been eye-opening, and is a hell of a lot more relaxing than beating myself up over them.

So why is it so difficult for us to do that?

People just don’t have hobbies ‘for fun’.

The Oxford English dictionary defines a hobby as ‘an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure’. I know a lot of people who genuinely don’t have any hobbies. They have busy lives and do lots of things, but they don’t have hobbies.

Let’s start by blaming digital media shall we? At the end of the day, it takes up a lot of our time, and, argue with me if you like, I don’t think you can call watching Netflix a hobby. It’s not really something you can be bad at either. Having so many series on demand means that it’s all too easy to waste an entire evening (or weekend…) bingeing a box set. And that doesn’t leave much room for anything else.

Discovering something new and even having the chance to be bad at it doesn’t happen very often. And you have to start off bad at things before you get good at them.

To be fair, many other people I know do have hobbies. But only hobbies that they’re good at. Some play football regularly. But they’re in a league. Or they learn languages. But they’re professional translators. The hobby is done partly for enjoyment, but they’ve got to get good at it too.

We’re too aware of others’ success.

Another thing that becomes very apparent when you spend time on the internet, is just how good other people are at things.

It’s commonly accepted that the proliferation of images of ‘perfect’ figures and faces in the media is bad for people’s self esteem. The negative impact of this perfection extends to other areas of life too. The vast majority of popular climbing accounts on Instagram, for example, show images of people who can only be described as super human, challenging the limits of what is physically possible. Why should I start something if I’m never going to get to that point?

The internet opened up a wonderful world where you can find and connect with people that share your interests. But it also plunges all the little fish into the big pond. The fact that you’re relatively good at ice skating compared to the rest of your friends starts to mean nothing when it’s so easy to compare yourself to world-class skaters on youtube. Something you might have been proud of and enjoyed loses its meaning.

We’re obsessed with productivity and hustle culture.

There’s a new productivity trend every other week. Whether it’s the good old pomodoro technique (big fan) or something more niche, we’re constantly bombarded with the newest ‘hacks’ to get us to get more done. But all too often these hacks are designed to ensure that you can do more and more productive things in the same amount of time: to cram all of the PRODUCTIVITY into your day. In my world, productivity hacks should be used to get what needs to be done done and then free up time to be, you know, you.

At the same time, we’ve become consumed by the idea of the side hustle.

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Google Trends 5-year search volume for side hustle (screenshot by author).

It’s not enough to have a full time job, you should also be monetising your hobbies. Like to write? Here are 10 ways to make money from it. Enjoy knitting? Why not sell your creations on Etsy. Collect bugs? Start an instagram account and find brands to sponsor you.

Guess what there isn’t any room in there for? Being bad at things. No one wants to go on Etsy and find a ‘mostly ok and I’m proud of it but it is admittedly a bit crap’ hat to give their newest niece. The hobby-as-side-hustle mentality leaves very little room to just switch off and enjoy what you’re doing without wondering if you’re perfect enough.

All of this means that people spend time either doing things that they’re good at, or that it’s impossible to be bad at.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that allowing myself to be bad at something, and to truly truly not care about it, is the most liberating thing in the world.

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Written by

Digital marketing strategist, coach, sometime writer. Founder of helping small business owners claim their space with confidence. Scotland/Spain

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