I want to excel at everything, instantly. When I don’t, I usually give up. I’m trying to learn to play guitar and cook a meal, and both are going very slow. I wrote this post last night, in a fit of frustration at my ineptitude.
I just started cooking and playing guitar a few months ago, and I’ve already quit a couple times. Days will go by where I scorn our pretty off-white Stratocaster, and barely step into the kitchen. But my desire to learn still nags at me, so grudgingly I light up the gas stove, or pick up the guitar again.
Why do I keep quitting?
It sends me into a foul, black mood every time I spend hours chopping vegetables only to produce a sub-par meal. Learning guitar is even more infuriating. I can read the music, I understand the strumming patterns, but my soft fingers refuse to go where I tell them. Every time I practice, I want to smash the damn thing to bits. My finger exercises are punctuated by me angrily slapping the strings, because I seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. I feel so stupid I could cry.
Inevitably time spent learning a new skill ends with me stomping around the house in a fit. “Stick with it,” Jason says. “Why would I want to stick with something that makes me this miserable? I’m not having ANY FUN.” He just stays quiet, leaving it to me to puzzle it out. Why keep trying to cook, and trying to play guitar, when it only produces shit? When it frustrates me to no end?
I desperately want to give up, like I’ve given up on so many hobbies in the past (swimming, jogging, photography, sewing, and knitting to name a few). After all, I’ve made it this far without cooking and guitar. Time spent preparing a sub-par meal, or practicing the same three chords, feels like time wasted; I could’ve browsed the internet or watched TV all night, like I usually do. A life lived in front of a screen is still technically a life, right?
So why should I stick with it?
I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I rarely feel real discomfort, and the fumbling agony of ineptitude. I’ve gotten pretty good at web design (though still not good enough). I’m quite skilled at a variety of iPhone games, and I can competently order takeout and pay my bills on time. Seemingly, I’ve got all the skills one needs to function and be a reasonably content adult.
But it’s not enough to get by with the knowledge I have. I want to be challenged, and feel the thrill of mastering a new skill. I know that struggle can eventually be enjoyable, even if now it makes me miserable. I know how much pain comes before proficiency. Right now my ineptitude hurts much worse than the raw soreness on my fingertips or the knife cuts and burns on my hands. But eventually, by the time the callouses form, I’ll be better at chord changes, and I’ll play a real song.
Who’s to say it will ever get better?
I often think, I’m not “cut out” to be a person who cooks or plays music. That I’m missing that natural inclination that others seem to have. I find myself wishing I could just BE GOOD at guitar, the way I was always good at web design. As if I have some innate ability that makes me a natural born designer, but I’m missing the cook / guitarist gene.
The truth is, that is a bullshit excuse. Talent and natural gifts do exist, and probably help to nudge us in the right direction. But even with an inclination towards design, I wasn’t good at it for a very, very long time.
It seems a miracle to me that I ever stuck with web design long enough to make a career from it; especially since I’m self taught. I toiled away in Flash MX for months, hiding my PowerBook behind the front desk of the hotel where I worked. And I wept from frustration when things didn’t work. I wanted to burn my HTML books to ashes when I couldn’t get an element to float right. To this day I look at early design mockups and bang my head against my desk, because I am too slow and stupid and conventional and lazy to make a decent looking website.
I’ve never “just been good” at design. It is an endless, miserable struggle to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be. But I’ve felt the glow of success, and occasionally I make something I’m proud of, so it’s finally become fun. In fact, being a designer isn’t just fun, it’s one of the best things about my life. I’m excited to build websites almost every day. It’s allowed me to have incredible experiences, and think about life through a different lens than I would have otherwise.
It’s all about attitude
My parents frequently remind me that it all comes down to attitude. I’m not a naturally optimistic person. My instinct, or maybe my learned habit, is to say “I’ll never be able to do this,” or “there’s no way this could ever be fun.” My tendency towards self-defeat is the biggest hurdle I have to overcome. But as web design has taught me, it’s so worth it.
I definitely won’t ever be Joan Jett or Julia Child, but some day I’ll be able to play silly punk songs with my boyfriend, and eventually I’ll throw a modest dinner party for my best friends. And I bet my life will be better for it.
This paraphrased quote from Ira Glass, which you’ve hopefully already seen, lays out a guiding principle for anyone doing creative work:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. … And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. … You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
It’s worth it to hear these words unedited from Ira, so be sure to watch the interview.