Learning to suck, learning to live

"Joy" written in lights

Earlier this year, for the first time in my life, I dipped my toes into baking seriously. I bought an oven, stocked up on dark cooking chocolate (for what is cake without chocolate?), researched recipes, measured my dishes, and rolled up my sleeves. The first few attempts ranged from the ordinary to outright disasters. (Those indestructible silicone baking moulds? They are not so indestructible after all.) Every burnt cake top, every lump of muffin hard enough to knock out a human being, every bottom layer of uncooked batter were my worst fears coming true: I sucked; I should have never embarked on this fruitless endeavour; bakeries existed for a reason.

Every minor disaster was another nail my baker’s coffin, and it effectively negated every item that came out of my oven in decent condition. At that point, unbeknowst to me, I was reacting to having grown up in a culture that teaches you that only what you’re good at counts.

The pandemic was still raging, I think it was August, when I read an article about being raised in an environment that glorifies achievement and achievement only (sorry, forgot to save the link). The story was in an American context, but there were some sharp similarities with middle-class Indian sensibilities, particularly for families with cultural capital where the motto is, be the best or be damned. I grew up in such a background. There was immense pressure to excel (and concommitant rewards) with the understanding that everything I do, I have to do well. As a result, I, and my contemporaries, grew up conflating achievement with enjoyment.

*

This has been a year of devastations and discoveries for all of us, and I’ve learnt and lost, succeeded and failed in bucketfuls just like anyone else. But the one thing that stands out is something I wish someone had told me when I was five years old—that being good at something isn’t the point of doing it; the point of doing something is, well, just doing it.

This conflation of “doing” and “succeeding” is so deeply internalised that most of us don’t even realise it. In my baking adventures, friends and family were all unanimously supportive, and I appreciate that support. It buoyed me, made me believe that some day I would be good at this, and kept me going.

But what I forgot to ask myself—or even knew that it could be asked—was: Am I having fun? Am I enjoying it?

I was! I baked when the rest of the world was asleep. I baked when I wanted something special. I baked because I’d met a challenging deadline. Plus, I baked when anxiety overwhelmed me. I baked when I was so burnt out that I couldn’t work and couldn’t sleep. I baked when I wondered if we were all dying of COVID-19.

And I wondered about all those pursuits I’d abandoned because I wasn’t any good at them and therefore considered them unworthy of my time. When I’d let the absence of automatic excellence define what I could (should?) enjoy.

*

Perfectionism is ruining our lives. It is a delusion, a false belief, a misconception, and it is holding us back. When we learn to embrace perfectionism at a young age, it traps us and subjugates us. According to professor and author Brené Brown:

Perfectionism is not the path that leads us to our gifts and to our sense of purpose; it’s the hazardous detour.

Brené Brown, https://brenebrown.com/

Author Kurt Vonnegut calls our hang-up about being perfect the “myth of talent”, and it comes from living in a culture of achievement that only values you for the things that can be quantified as a success. Here’s the full quote that made the final pieces fall into place for me:

When I was 15 I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes. And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”

And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.” And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “win” at them.

Kurt Vonnegut, https://www.boredpanda.com/being-good-at-things-quote-kurt-vonnegut/

Unravelling a lifetime’s worth of socialisation takes more than just flipping a switch. But when the switch is flipped, everything is bathed in a new light. I think about this every time I lace up my new roller skates, and I ask myself the only question that matters: Am I enjoying this new pursuit? Am I having fun?

~PD

(Image credit: Photo by Brit Brodeur from FreeImages)

2 Replies to “Learning to suck, learning to live”

  1. Enjoyed this very much, as I embark on another year of writing in which the only sure reward is my own growth and enjoyment. Let me hold to the truth that that’s enough. May all your cakes rise and muffins puff!

    1. Thanks, Mimi! May your words flow too.

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