How to Enjoy Being Bad at Something
by Stephanie Stern
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.