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The joy of getting good at things

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Ever on the lookout for how to make you guys happier and more fulfilled, I picked up on something a woman said to me the other day.

“I only really enjoy things I’m good at, but unfortunately I’m not good at many things...”

That was so sad!

And as always when I hear something like that, I ask myself, “Is this person living in a cage of her own making that she can actually bust out of any time she wants, if only she were to change her perspective?” It’s the classic and essential question: what IS the cage that’s keeping us trapped, and is it even real? And so how do we break out of it?

I’m not going to talk about the notion that you can only enjoy things you’re good at. But I have to say that’s not as true as it sounds. You don’t have to be good at swimming to enjoy splashing around in the ocean, for example. Lots of people get a ton of pleasure writing bad poetry.

But I get it. Feeling you’re struggling with something can take the pleasure out of something.

Still, there’s another assumption here that bothers me. It’s that you have to be stuck not being good at things. That’s what I want to address here.

And this is where I have a huge surprise for you. The distance between your not being able to do something at all and your being good at it is MUCH closer than you think. Realistically!

Now let’s not get carried away. If you’re middle aged, you might never become good at playing the violin. If you’ve never been good at math, you might never become good at math—to the point where you can dive into the deep end of advanced mathematics—no matter how hard you work. And if you define “good at basketball” as playing for the NBA, well most of us will never be that good.

So let me define the “good” I’m talking about here. I’m talking about being good at something in the sense of you can do it well enough to be feel good about what you’re putting out and you’re able to put that out fairly comfortably. In that sense, most of us can astound ourselves with the number of things we can become good at in a reasonable period of time.

What do you need? I’ll lay it out for you.

--> It should be something you want to do and that you’re pretty sure will give you pleasure. You’ve always wanted to be able to draw, or play an instrument, or do a sport like tennis or fencing, or learn something like Spanish or art history or how to build a small house all by yourself? YOU CAN DO THAT.

--> Your expectations should be reasonable. If you’re a full-grown adult, you’ll probably never be able to learn to be as fluent in Spanish as a native. But so what? That’s not what “good” means. Good means good enough. Good means—it should mean—you can read stuff in Spanish, talk to people in Spanish, deal with things that come up with people who only speak Spanish. A year ago my husband started learning Spanish online. Let’s say he’s halfway to being good now. Fine. In another year, he’ll be good. That’s only two years, doing it for no more than a half hour a day. Not bad!

--> Find the best method for learning that suits the kind of thing you’re learning. Some things require an in-person class. Some things require one-on-one lessons. Some things you can learn online. You can learn to write a novel by buying a book on how to write a novel! But don’t handicap yourself by choosing a poor method for learning. You’re not going to be able to learn to play the flute by watching YouTube videos. They won’t give you the feedback you need.

--> Work at your learning every single day. That’s really important. You’ve heard about that 10,000-hour thing? Forget it! It’s discouraging and it’s not even true. What is true is that daily effort is what really pays off. 15 minutes a day is better than 1 hour every 4 days.

--> Understand the learning curve. The learning curve is a law of nature and you can’t beat it, so don’t try to. It says something very simple: at first learning will seem to go slowly. Maybe so slowly that you won’t feel you’re making progress at all in the very early stages. IGNORE THOSE FEELINGS!! You ARE making progress. At the beginning a lot of progress consists of laying the foundation for progress and that can feel like getting nowhere. But no one is EVER getting nowhere if they keep going at it.

--> Enjoy your journey. Don’t think about your progress. Just focus on the thing you’re working on now. That’s how you’ll feel it’s all good stuff no matter where you are, no matter what your pace of learning seems to be. Think of learning as taking a trip of a lifetime to China. Maybe you have 3 stopovers. So what! A stopover doesn’t mean you’re not getting to China. It's a part of your trip to China. Just be where you are on your journey and delight in the progress you HAVE made.

--> Anticipate what I call The Surprise. It always happens. You go on and on learning, working at trying to become good at something. Then one day, one magic day, something happens and BANG! it hits you that you ARE good now.

And the enjoyment you thought you couldn’t have because of not being good at something? Well, now you can have it. But you know what? Think of all the enjoyment you’ve been having becoming good. What freedom!

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