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News » Opinion


Is it great to suck at something?



"(It's Great to) Suck at Something."

That headline in The New York Times drew me in like a come-hither look. The April opinion piece by Karen Rinaldi describes an obsessive love of surfing, the sport to which she has devoted the past 15 years. "And yet—I suck at it," she writes matter-of-factly. "So why continue? Why pursue something I'll never be good at? Because it's great to suck at something."

I don't much like the slang verb "to suck," but I am a sucker for paradox. I love the glimmer of insight from between curtains of contradiction. To the paradoxical question of what's so great about failing, Rinaldi explains: "In the process of trying to attain a few moments of bliss, I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile."

I am guessing that Rinaldi is younger than I. She is old enough to value patience and humility, but I doubt she is old enough to experience failing eyesight, slowing reflexes, painful knees and muscles gone soft. In combination, these impediments call the dance. You might have the freedom to pursue the futile, but you might have lost the wherewithal the pursuit requires. It is a fact of aging and aging sucks.

Pursuing the futile might also be simply a waste of time. Take golf, for example. Most of my friends are golfers, and they invite me to join them at Bonneville or Mountain Dell. But I suck at golf. In my years on the links, the joy of an occasional birdie was doused by the frustration of a thousand double-bogies. I had to admit that golf was unsatisfying. The more I played, the more apparent it became that improving was as unlikely as hitting a 250-yard drive. So I gave it up. It didn't seem prudent to continue. There were other pastimes where my time and effort could be invested more profitably.

Fly-fishing is one. I am attracted to its aesthetic, which is as much a melding of art and science as is the vinting of pinot noir grapes. Winemakers rely on chemistry as fly-fishermen rely on entomology. A winemaker needs a bloodhound nose; a fly-fisherman, an osprey eye. I love fishing in rivers small enough to wade. I find it to be a cumulative learning experience like mastering the labyrinth of Boston one street at a time. The complexity is challenging, and my fly-fishing mantra is borrowed from Samuel Beckett: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." My skill with a fly rod is middling, but I believe that it will improve if I continue to fail better.

To fail better was a strategy used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a robot prototype a decade ago. DARPA, the folks who brought you the internet, offered $1 million to anyone who could build a robot capable of traversing a 130-mile track by itself. In the first round, every entrant failed. A year later, five succeeded. Opening itself to failure had the effect of jump-starting DARPA's development of robot vehicles.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell is more focused on success than failure in his best-selling book, Outliers. He asserts that 10,000 hours is "the magic number of greatness." He writes about the Beatles' countless hours performing in Hamburg clubs in the years before "Love Me Do" made the record charts. He describes Bill Gates' unlimited access to a mainframe computer beginning in middle school. Many of Gladwell's readers took the 10,000-hour rule to mean "practice makes perfect": Play the guitar for 10,000 hours and you can jam with Eric Clapton. That conclusion overlooks the essentiality of talent, however. If you don't have talent, no amount of practice is going to make you great. Gladwell's point is that guitar-playing talent needs thousands of hours of practice to develop. Point taken. However, I would really like to believe a talent deficit could be offset by some combination of blood, sweat and tears, but examples are as uncommon as a selfless politician. It is easier to name the slugs who stumbled into a lot of money or won an election—or vice versa. In my dotage, I am less attuned to Gladwell's wisdom than Woody Allen's. Allen observed: "Showing up is 80 percent of life."

That life is short is a complicating factor. With the clock running, you have to ask yourself why you would persist in a pastime you know to be dead-end futile. To do so seems illogical and certainly impractical. Rinaldi suggests a couple of reasons. First, self-knowledge: "The onus is on us as individuals to admit to ourselves how much we suck at something. And then do it anyway. By taking off the pressure of having to excel at or master an activity, we allow ourselves to live in the moment." Hers is a persuasive point. In the days I played a lot of tennis, I preferred hitting groundstrokes to playing sets. The rhythm of a groundstroke exchange between two players was always more satisfying—dare I say Zen-like?—than keeping score.

Second, Rinaldi thinks an appreciation of how difficult many things are might make us more sympathetic, and by trying and failing, we may become more empathetic. With empathy being degraded by social-media addiction, any intervention is welcome.

I am sympathetic to Rinaldi's viewpoint but not converted. She fails to convince me that it's great to suck at something (like golf). It seems like a shortsighted indulgence (searching for balls in the rough) as the days dwindle down. Were the future open-ended, I might feel differently. But it isn't. And that really sucks.

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