Gather round and let me spin you a yarn about the time I tried to learn to knit. No, wait, come back.
You see, it all started when I asked a dear friend, who often has her knitting in tow, to teach me how. She generously agreed and even bought me some lovely yarn and a pair of needles. Well friends, I think it’s safe to say that my natural gifts are not to be found in the crafting department. As I sat there clumsily poking at the yarn, I felt my frustration building. Within minutes (minutes!) I was ready to toss it aside and say, “Not for me.” I am pleased to report that I did not do that, but inside I felt like the frustrated, tearful kid trying to learn Algebra from a patient parent. (Sorry, Dad!)
This led me to wonder, Why does it feel so bad to be bad at something? Is it just me?
Here’s what I think is happening here. I think sometimes when we are bad at something, our hyper-sensitive, anxious side kicks in. I understand that anxiety is the result of our well-meaning primitive brain trying to protect us. This ancient lizard brain, whose only job is to keep us alive, is ever-vigilant. To the lizard brain, social threats can be just as real as physical threats. There’s good reason for this. Way back when we were living in caves, the threat of being ousted from the tribe probably was a matter of life or death. I get that. And I get that we should be compassionate to ourselves and thank our lizard brains for keep us alive so far. (Well done, lizard brain!) Still, no matter how smart your brain is, your lizard brain is pretty dumb. Mine seems to be particularly obtuse if it senses threat in a knitting lesson.
The exchange goes something like this:
Lizard brain: You are not good at this! Abort! Abort!
Me: Dude, I’m just trying to learn something new.
Lizard brain: But this is embarrassing! People will see.
Me: See what? What people?
Lizard brain: …You are not good at this! Quit now.
See how that goes? The lizard brain is not smart. Maybe, maybe, if we are in a post-apocalyptic situation and we must rely on knitting skills for warmth, maybe it’s important. Otherwise, it does not matter one iota to my life.
I know the knitting example is a silly one, but I think the concept applies to any new thing that feels icky and frustrating and bad. Because anytime we try something new, there is a very good chance that we will be bad at it. As adults who are unaccustomed to this feeling, sometimes it can be perceived as an indication that we shouldn’t be doing it. And then… we have to remind ourselves that it’s okay. It’s okay to be bad at something. That’s how it usually starts. And little by little, we become less terrible.
While lizard brains will never exactly be smart, they can be a little more sensible with training. Counter-intuitively, this means finding more opportunities to do things you’re bad at. This, I understand, is how anxiety is tamed– by doing more of the anxiety producing things until they are boring and no longer create anxiety. This, my friends, is why it is good to be bad at things–to teach ourselves and our dumb lizard brains that the threat isn’t real.
Let’s go forth, people, and find new and interesting things to be bad at. Are you with me?