There are things we do well and things we suck at. We suck at math or remembering names or carrying a tune. Almost everyone sucks at learning a new language (or at least you think you do). But, what about the things we don’t suck at? Perhaps you’re an excellent cook or superb golfer (although most golfers suck half of the time) or you strike an impressive downward dog?
When we were growing up we sucked at a lot of things. Think walking. Eventually, we could not only walk but run and then do the moon walk. We couldn’t ride a bike, then we could. Learning an instrument or chess or mountain climbing took a bit more time. We sucked at all of these things until we practiced and got better. This goes on and on as we add more skills to our lives. With each new task, our brain changes and responds by adding more neural connections. These connections are strengthened each time we perform a task.
At some point in our lives, especially as we age, we quit learning new things. Oh, I’m not talking about learning some new “revelation”, as if it’s any surprise, about our darkening political climate. I’m referring to really new and hard skills or tasks, like playing the ukelele or Suduko. Venturing into new territory as an adult is hard because we don’t want to suck or look silly or, heaven help us, fail. We avoid frustration and pain. At some point, we default to do what we do well and avoid new challenges.
A bruised ego is no fun and a flat-out failing feels disastrous. I hear there are courses at posh universities that actually have classes on how to suck and survive. See the article in the NYT, On Campus, Failure is on the Syllabus, on failing well. A student said “On our campus, everything can feel like such a competition, I think we get caught up in this idea of presenting an image of perfection. So to see these failures being talked about openly, for me I sort of felt like, ‘O.K., this is O.K., everyone struggles.e “
Trying out new tasks not only builds some grit but also builds our brains, which is especially important as we get older. New activities do not just mean switching from fiction to nonfiction. It means switching from reading to doing Tai Chi or biking to learning to play the guitar. You’ll be laying down new and reinforcing existing neural functions. And, this is good.
Lately, I’ve been practicing at sucking. Since relocating to Bend, Oregon, I’ve had the opportunity to do some outdoor activities that are new or newish to me. They say that failure builds character and I’m building plenty. Take mountain bike riding. I started riding with a friendly, forgiving women’s group. It didn’t take long until it dawned on me that I sucked. I was slow and walked the steep ups and the scary downs. Also, I’m not a very good paddler. My tennis game currently sucks, although, with practice, it is improving. Regardless, I’m glad I’m sucking,
With each challenge, I’ve had the opportunity to practice being present and mindful and watch when feelings arise. Hello, frustration. I see you fear and pain and avoidance. What’s up with you ego? I did a lot of self-talking-to with each of these feelings. With each arising thought, I made it a practice to sit back and observe was happening in my mind. Was fear was overriding ego? Was ego speaking louder than pain? Was avoidance the default?
If you like this topic, listen to KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny. The episode is 6/8/16 with Gerald Marzorati entitled Advice for the Aging: Learning Something “Different and Hard”. You can search for it at https://ww2.kqed.org/forum/. One of the callers said he was learning Arabic, not for professional reasons but for curiosity. After his morning run, he does 20 or 30 minutes of Arabic study and found it to be as much of a work-out as his run. He says, “it’s a real strain on your brain and when you’re done you . . . had a good feeling of tiredness. It’s a great way to start the day” He felt he had given his brain a workout. I’m guessing he probably sucked at it and maybe still does. But that’s not stopping him.
I hope you decide to suck a bit. It won’t kill you and could even make you stronger, so they say. Check it out.