How to Enjoy Being Bad at Something

I’m a terrible singer, but at this time last year, I signed up for singing lessons—mostly because as poorly as I sing, I really like doing it. Belting out pop songs and show tunes makes me happy, and I thought taking a few lessons might build a bit of confidence (not to mention help me with my pitch) and make it even more fun. I did this despite knowing that I would never be good at it fundamentally, and in the process, I learned some important rules of thumb for how to be bad at something.

The basics of how to enjoy being bad are simple: Pick an activity you enjoy doing for fun but are pretty bad at, and laugh when you mess up. These instructions are, of course, deceptively simple. The tricky part is maintaining the attitude of actually enjoying that you’re bad at something. Here’s how to do that successfully:

Know that friends will expect results.
When I told people about my singing lessons, I was commonly met with questions about what I was going to do with them. Would I have a recital? Maybe join a choir? My response, that I was just taking them to take them, was often was met with blank stares. We are achievement-oriented. We have goals! And goals can be worthwhile, but we forget that we don’t need them for everything. My lessons let me explore singing purely for the joy of doing it. It was such a pleasure to cultivate something in my life that I do solely for enjoyment, without needing to get anywhere or accomplish anything.

 

Remember that being bad at something is perfectly fine.
There are things that we’re not good at doing that genuinely make us feel bad. This isn’t about that. Pick something to be bad at that doesn’t tie to your identity or self-worth. We spend all day judging ourselves about so many things. But when I say that I am bad at singing, to me, this feels like a neutral assessment of my singing abilities (and my teacher would certainly agree). I am not judging myself—I am not a bad person, nor any less wonderful because I happen to be a bad singer. Being a good singer is not core to my identity, and I have no expectations that I will be good at it, nor do I need any validation (from myself or others) about this part of me.

 

Revel in the freedom of being bad at something.
When I let go of expectations, I found a lot of freedom, which gave me the ability to sing with abandon. I could just focus on enjoying the singing without judging it in the same moment. In allowing myself to be bad, I freed up room to try new things, like silly vocal warm-ups and singing with a mic. In Zen Buddhism, this type of attitude is called the “beginner’s mind.” This state of mind is full of possibilities and enthusiasm. It hasn’t been trampled by expectations and limits.

 

Don’t set up expectations to get better.
You can hope to get better, and, by spending time doing the thing you’re bad at, you just might. But don’t expect to—try not to attach value to how bad you are or how much you do (or don’t) improve. If doing the thing you’re bad at makes you smile, that’s enough. Hopefully, doing something for the pure pleasure of it can help you see the joy in other things you do for more practical reasons. Like all things that might not come naturally, it’s good to practice being bad at something to help you cultivate this joy.

 

Armed with this attitude, I ended up really enjoying my lessons. It was thrilling to practice something that gave me pleasure without needing to accomplish anything. I didn’t care if I messed up (which I did, frequently). I didn’t get frustrated at myself or disappointed that I didn’t “make more progress.” I was able to just enjoy the lessons themselves for their own sake.

One last caveat: I would suggest only doing something like this when you really feel like it. If you have to make yourself do it, it may just lead to frustration since, let’s face it, you’re not all that good at it anyway.

 

Stephanie Stern works on energy efficiency and environmental issues in San Francisco. You can learn more about her at stephstern.com. She is very good at doing things badly, especially singing.

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11 Comments / Post A Comment

ThatJenn (#916)

This is awesome advice. I find doing or learning about things that are outside my normal scope of expertise/skills can be really helpful, if not goal-oriented.

I also get a lot of people who stare at me blankly when I say I signed up to do something just to do it. I got trained as a community emergency response team member with no real plan to join any neighborhood/organizations that do that sort of thing afterwards, and am on three advisory boards (two to my city commission, for the bus system and the parks system, and one to the performing arts branch of my local university and workplace), with no real endgame in mind. People are confused as to why I would just… do stuff. (Everyone’s convinced I’m gunning to be a local politician, but really it’s just kind of interesting and very different from my usual life and job.)

joyballz (#2,000)

@ThatJenn I’ve been met with blank stares when I answer, “because I like it?”

ellabella (#1,480)

I LOVE doing things I’m bad at. I have also taken singing lessons, knowing that I can’t sing and will never be good. I like running and knowing I don’t need to try and go fast because even if I did try really hard I still wouldn’t go fast. So instead I can just GO, at whatever speed feels right.

I would like to be okay being bad at team sports, but instead I just get a lot of anxiety about letting down other people. It reminds me of the time I made a basket–for the wrong team. In sixth grade. I think working on this and realizing that everyone does not expect me to be perfect and good at everything all the time would probably be good but, ugh, so hard.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@ellabella Do you end up HAVING to play team sports for some reason?? Whenever I play team sports there’s a person who obviously doesn’t give a shit at all and is terrible, and I’m confused why that person is there. But feeling anxious about it isn’t good either. It seems like those activities should all be opt-in.

ellabella (#1,480)

@aetataureate No, and I haven’t played any, at all, for… 4 years? And that was like, two IM soccer games. But I wish I liked it! It’s not a question of opt-inness, I just seem how much fun some of my friends derive from doing it and wish I felt the same!

And my problem isn’t that I don’t give a shit, because I really do, hence the anxiety. I’m actually exactly afraid that I will LOOK like I don’t give a shit and (actually) be terrible, and people will think I don’t give a shit and be annoyed at me. Well, fears validated I guess. :/

aetataureate (#1,310)

@ellabella I didn’t mean to make you feel bad! If sports aren’t fun there’s no way to make them be, I don’t think. But there are definitely other things you love that athletes are bad at! “Other people are bad at other things!” is not a great mantra, I realize.

Or maybe there’s some team sport out there that you’d love and you just haven’t found it yet. Not that you should feel obligated to keep trying them out. We’re all adults here.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

“the art of doing it anyway” — great tag; more of this, please.

adtran (#4,141)

Ooh, where does a non-singer sign up for singing lessons? Looking up music schools on yelp, the phone book? Rando posts on Craigslist? And how did you choose?

Inquiring minds want to know!

stephstern (#4,149)

@adtran I used Yelp to find my singing instructor– I specifically looked for reviews that mentioned being new to singing and feeling very comfortable. I think any method could work (Craigslist, word of mouth, phone book…), but it’s important to feel comfortable and supported.

Beaks (#3,488)

Bowling. I am very good at being very bad at bowling. High fives for gutter balls and jumping up and down with excitement if it looks like you might hit a pin is key. Alcohol, oddly enough, totally optional.

I’m also barely capable at ice skating (can’t stop), but I feel like ice skating is one of those things where once you get to the point where you can not fall down, the experience is totally magical (until you try to stop, crash into the wall, sit down and realize you can’t feel your toes because you tied your skates wrong…just me?)

Harriet (#4,146)

What great advice! I’m going to try using it on Nia, which I’ve been afraid to try even though it looks like so much fun.

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