On doing things we’re bad at

I passionately dislike doing things that I am bad at.

Not things that are challenging — I love doing challenging, difficult, complicated things, especially when they are things that teach me interesting information and help me better understand the world. No, I specifically do not enjoy doing things that I’m no good at, and I think that’s true for a lot of us who have a lot of natural talent for something; when doing something is easy and comes naturally, why should we struggle and fight to do something that is not natural, that feels wrong and confusing? I’ve had a lifetime of being good at writing, and while I’m continuously trying to develop as a writer, to be better, to do better, I do it in the fundamental awareness that writing is something I am good at.

But this year I’ve decided to take on some challenges for myself. I’m trying to bake one difficult, fiddly, challenging recipe every month because while I am a good baker, I’m not always great at precision work. In January, I made croissants, and was startled by how relatively straightforward they were, how this was more about time and rest than anything else. In February, I made tiramisu, and I learned that while I enjoy eating tiramisu, I do not enjoy making it. But now I’ve made it, so I can say that I understand the mechanics, and I have a greater appreciation for it. Also it probably would have helped if I’d been using a recipe that was formatted in pretty much any other imaginable way.

One of my other projects is sewing. I can mend something in a rudimentary way, but more advanced sewing was beyond me, so I turned to a friend to mentor me. It’s ridiculous to be unable to hem my own garments, but more than that, I want pants that fit and look nice and aren’t made by companies that use questionable labour practices. I want to understand how things are constructed. I want to know how to fix things that aren’t working and I want to know the ‘why’ of many things about sewing, because they intrigue me.

Under her watchful eye, I made a pair of pajama pants. They’re pretty great, the print is red and black with ravens and spiders and skulls and other spooky things on it. The women at the sewing store leaned over the counter to ask us in hushed tones if we were aware of the skulls. Maybe we didn’t look like the kind of people who buy skull fabric on purpose.

Then on my own I made a pair of pants, and I learned a lot of things along the way, which is good, because when I finished, they were way too large and I had to adjust them, and in doing so learned a lot about reverse-engineering patterns and modifying them to fit. I have a body that is weird, and different from a lot of bodies, and there is no basic sewing pattern that will just work, for me.

Sewing is a very tactile art that requires precision and math and knowledge of spatial relationships and patience, all things that I am very, very bad at. Sometimes I have to text a friend for math help or I sew a seam only to realise that I totally messed it up and I have to pick it out and sew again. Sometimes something just won’t work, and I realise it’s because I made a mess five stages back and I have to painstakingly clean it up.

While the material for these pants were cheaper than a lot of new pants, the time spent definitely compensated for it. But this was never about price. It was about challenging myself to do something I am bad at, about recognising that I would probably fuck these up (I did) but that I should keep going anyway, because in the process, I learn things. And I have tactile results to look at, a pair of pants that I made, myself, that I could wear out into the world. The next thing I sew will be easier, and so will the thing after that.

Forcing myself to do things I am bad at is a personal challenge and one that is teaching me things about myself, but also about other people. I recognise when other people are afraid of doing something, or don’t want to do it, because they think they will be bad at it, or because they don’t want to put in the effort only to fail. Maybe life as a writer prepares you for failure — if I couldn’t cope with having things rejected and editors slashing my darlings and pieces just falling through, I’d be in for a very rough life. I recognise that these things aren’t a reflection on me, a referendum on whether I am good at what I am doing. Rather, they’re refinements, things that make me better and stronger.

Perhaps I don’t dislike things I’m bad at as much as I think I do, and perhaps what I really needed was to stop looking for excuses not to do them. I’m looking forward to other challenges this year, to redefining what it means to be ‘bad at’ something, for me.

Image: Needle, Vlastimil Koutecky, Flickr