Monday, December 26, 2011

When You're Bad At Something

I am genuinely bad at things. And don't give me that, "Oh, come now, you're really good at _____," stuff. I'm not looking for compliments here. I just feel like it's important for people (especially kids and teens) to know that most things don't come naturally, and just because you're bad at something doesn't mean you always will be.

I still remember my first endeavor to cook solo—I was around eleven, and I was going to make myself a grilled cheese sandwich. Well, it was the saddest sandwich ever. I put the butter on the inside. I cut the cheese too thick. I had the stove on too high, so it burnt before the cheese even got warm.

I wasn't a great writer growing up. I enjoyed writing, for sure, but my writing was hit and miss. I was a terrible speller (I even wrote "I'm a good speler" in a list of attributes about myself in 2nd grade, ha.) (I'm still a really shaky speller, even after my minor in editing). I never got my paper read in front of the class by the teacher, etc. and so forth.

Art was the same way. I was never the best in my class. I never got first place in a show. To this day I am not strong with any kind of paint. Me and paint don't get along at all. And even when I try realism it still looks like a cartoon.

I could go on, but I think that's enough. The truth is that I don't really have any natural talent. I've tried a lot of things, and it's never been one of those moments where I just magically had skill. Not with the flute. Not on the swim team. Not singing. Not running. Not acting. Not gymnastics. Not playing Go. Not blogging. Nothing. And yet I've always had this dream or hope or whatever that there's something out there I'm "meant to do." You know what I mean—that thing that is so entwined with my destiny I know immediately that this is my future and I will be amazing at it.

This probably sounds totally ridiculous, but I remember very vividly how it seemed like that growing up. I'd see my peers doing amazing things, and it seemed that talent sprouted out of their very being with no effort whatsoever. I thought maybe if I found my own talent I'd be amazing like that, too.

But everything was hard. I have a suspicion it was hard for most of the people I admired as well, though it didn't seem like it back then. It felt like all I did was fall on my face a lot. Some things I stuck with because I just loved them so much, like art. Drawing was, oftentimes, my refuge. I got better only because I drew literally every single day. I have the 13+ notebooks to prove it, not to mention all the portfolios from classes still taking up space in my parents' storage.

Shockingly enough, I didn't make leaping improvements in my writing until I started working on it everyday either. Take a guess on what made me a better cook—I'm sure it's obvious.

The things that I am good at now are a result of loving that thing and then working really hard to do it well. Actually, not entirely true. I didn't like to cook, but had to because there's no way we could afford to eat out often. If I wanted good food, I had to learn to make it myself. It was a skill that came out of necessity and then turned into something I really love. But anyway, the common denominator here is work.

Work sucks sometimes. I can't tell you that if you work harder than anyone else you'll be on top. If that were true, I would be way further ahead than I am. But alas, I'm still up against some people who have honest-to-goodness talent. It's hard to deal with sometimes. I won't lie and say I'm totally fine when someone who has put in half the work and time I have gets twice the reward I do. It's hard to accept—important to accept—but hard. It's hard to have to start so far behind the pack at times. It's hard to face so much failure, to not be able to learn and improve as quickly as others. And it's especially frustrating when a Natural Talent doesn't even TRY and still does better than you, and worse, doesn't even care or appreciate the thing they're so good at.

When I think about how hard it can be sometimes, it isn't any wonder I keep looking for that Magical Thing I'm Good At.

But on the flip side, there are some comforts in all this sucking at stuff. For one, I do believe with all my heart that anyone can improve in something if they want to. It doesn't matter what it is—you can go after it and do it well. It might take twice as long. You may never be as good as a prodigy. But you as a human being have the potential to succeed. It is part of all of us.

Work, practice, determination—these things put us on an even playing field. Of course, the field might not look even (it often doesn't to me), but it is, because those who have to work harder often gain secondary skills the naturals don't. I mean, I don't love that I know how to work out of pure necessity, but it comes in handy. When the going gets tough, I don't stop. Sometimes those who've had it easier do. When you are naturally bad at stuff, you are also more likely to continue pushing yourself, never quite trusting that's you've "made it." Whereas someone with natural talent runs the risk of resting on their laurels and not going outside their comfort zone.

Basically, I'm saying my extra experience in the Field of Sucking helps me come out on top at times. Who knew?

Eventually, all the work you do starts to look a lot like talent to people on the outside. Lots of people tell me I'm talented at certain things now, but I know the truth and am mostly proud of that truth. There was very little talent involved, and nor is there likely to be a random sprouting of it in the future. If I want to be good at something, the only way for me to get it is through hard work and endurance.

At this point you might want to say work is my true talent, but even working hard took me a long time to learn. I used to give up rather quickly, until I realized that the things I did often were the things I was best at. The "doing often" brought on the "best at," not the other way around.

So if you're bad at stuff, take heart and realize you're actually in the majority. The older I've gotten, the more I've realized that "natural talent" is kind of a myth. And even if it isn't, talent is nothing without the work part. Better to put in the effort at something than spend your life waiting for that one magical talent.


  1. I wish someone had said this to me twenty years ago (and that I'd been inclined to listen). Instead I had to figure it out the hard way. Great post!

  2. Thank you for writing this! I feel this way about my writing. I'm not a 'natural', but it's something that I love and am willing to work at. Knowing that someone who is getting published also had to work hard for it gives me hope :)

  3. I had a dance teacher once who was a complete natural. God just handed her the gift of dance and she did everything beautifully. But, I didn't learn anything from her, because she couldn't explain anything. It all came too easily to her and she'd never had to put any thought into the process. "just do it better" was the most she could muster. I'll never be even a quarter as skilled as she was, but I reassure myself with the knowledge that all my hard work enables me to truly understand and explain the intricacies of technique to my students. With hard work comes deeper understanding and appreciation.

    Great post!

  4. With every post you put up, I get more and more creeped out over how much we're alike.

    Dun dun dunnn.

  5. I always appreciate your combination of positive outlook and down-to-earth honesty about yourself. Makes you very approachable. Thanks for a great post.

  6. Oh man...I could have written this. I am one of those "jack of all trades, master of none" sort of people. I enjoy things, and I do a lot, but I'm not GOOD at any of it. I made a pledge with this writing thing that THIS would be the thing I would work my butt off to GET good at, but it took a long time to realize that it was going to take a lot of work, that it wouldn't come naturally.

    There are people with that natural talent, but they aren't as common as it seems, and that's a nice thing to realize.

  7. Great post. I think sometimes the word 'talent' and 'desire' are mixed up. I think you have to have desire to be good at anything because becoming good at something takes work and in order to do that work, you have to want to. I mean sure, I'd love to be good at the piano, but I just don't have enough desire to put in the work necessary. And I've always wanted to be a good artist, but again, I don't have even a little bit of the desire necessary to practice. There's a lot to be said for hard work and practice. :)

  8. Terrific post & you are so right-people who work hard get better. Read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers-wonderful book about what you just said. It seems you've figured important things out about yourself, & life.

  9. If it makes you feel any better, I think very, *very* few people are born with a "natural talent" at anything. I'd wager that 95% of us have to work hard to get anywhere in life. And the sooner we realize this, as you wisely have, the better off we'll be.

    Good post, Natalie. :)

  10. You are so right! Even natural talent requires hard work and practice.

  11. This post.


    (Also, reminds me a lot of the point of the parenting methods/philosophies Amy Chua talks about in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She doesn't make it sound as warm/fuzzy/inspiring as this, but it's the same principle.)

  12. Beautifully said! I don't think I have any "natural talent", either, and the fact is that most of the people I've known who have seemed to have it have actually worked pretty darn hard without making a show of it. But like you, I've worked pretty hard at some things. Still suck compared to lots of people, but I like the feeling of getting better at stuff. I'll probably never be "the best" at anything ever, but I can still end up darn good!

  13. I believe natural talent exists, absolutely, but even Mozart wouldn't have gotten anywhere if he hadn't sat at the piano and practiced and pushed himself harder and harder. Hard work is what defines everything. I think we're all inclined toward certain things. I remember a friend pointed out to me once that my natural talent was motivation and drive and that pushed everything else into being. You have that, too, I think, or you wouldn't keep doing what you do. You love food, you love stories, and that love right there is a gift. :)

  14. I remember having that feeling very strongly while in college. I was in the theatre program with all these AMAZING people. I had several friends who were truly gifted actors, and one who was an innate musician. One who was this crazy-good stage manager (trust me, if you've ever been in the theatre world, there IS something such as a crazy-good SM). I had a magician friend and friends who were dancers. That was WHAT they were -- they had a label and I didn't. I acted a little, I stage managed, I directed... but I wasn't BRILLIANT at any of it. I muddled through. I did okay but no one was urging me to make it a career.

    Then, I remember bemoaning my mediocrity to a friend one night (wine coolers may have been involved). He -- an astounding theatre techie guy, by the way -- told me that I did have a special talent. This is going to sound seriously after-school special time, but he told me that I'm really good at being a friend. It might have just been the Bartles & James talking, but I held onto that, and I still do.

    Yes, it helps that I have a writing career (and of course it took a LOT of work), but that one comment from that one friend is the thing that means more to me, and it's the thing that I try to live up to every day.

    I don't know you in real life, but the way you think about things and intuit... I suspect you have other talents that extend beyond the easily labeled...

  15. I was just thinking about this since I saw an ad on Goodreads calling an author something like "a brilliant new talent." I know it's a common phrase, but I really didn't like that—because it did make it sound like everything came naturally and easily for this author (doubtful), and conversely, if it didn't come naturally and easily for someone else, they were not a talent.

    A talent is something you have, something which probably still needs you to work at to be able to share it.

  16. This is so true. So many people with talent waste their talent because they don't put in the work to maintain the skills necessary. I'm definitely one of them. I have talent with music. I can pick up melodies and rhythms so easily, but there is actual work going into playing an instrument and I barely scraped by at piano lessons because I wouldn't put the work into learning how to read music. So even people with talent need to learn the hard lesson of putting work into the things they love.

  17. Very wise post. I do a fair bit of work with gifted kids and that ability to stick-with-something-when-it's-tough can be really tricky for them to develop. And it's important for EVERYONE to have it no matter how much initial talent they have - people can be amazing first-draft writers, for example, but the person who can do an okay first draft but then revise and revise still comes out ahead.

  18. I am naturally talented at foreign languages. I can pick them up by watching tv shows. But, like you said, this natural talent works against me. I've never really put in much effort with a language. And so I'm fluent enough to never have a problem but not fluent enough to be an interpreter.

    I often joke that I have the Japanese of a 3 year old pirate (from watching too much One Piece, and picking up strange words that noone actually uses - lol). All of my languages are kind of like that. Because I don't make the effort to take them past where they are naturally.

    I'm hoping that my writing doesn't end up like that. :(