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Five reasons to keep doing something you're not good at

It is natural to want to be good at everything we try. And there are many benefits to keeping on with things we are not so good at.
Five reasons to keep doing something you're not good at

The way we are shaped is determined by the culture we grow up in. We live in a productivity-oriented, hyper capitalistic world where our value is determined by individual excellence. We all want to be masters. And we want to keep up with only those things which we can master. When we buy into any trend or culture, we perpetuate it.

When we keep up with something we struggle with, we do our bit to change the world. Imagine the rich conversations parents and elders can have with children about their own process instead of being pedantic and instructing young kids to not give up!

I began learning the ukelele in January this year. I had visions of mastering it quickly and leading groups by the campfire. I had seen my friends do it in a short while during the pandemic. I was confident I could do it too. It seemed easy enough.

It has been six months, minus the time I was on vacation, since I started. I have learned three songs. When I play, it is not smooth. No one can sing along with my playing, not even me, because the rhythm is all wonky. I have come close to giving up many times. But I have made the decision to keep going. I am getting better, albeit slowly, and I am benefitting in many other ways.

Based on my experience with the ukelele, my knowledge of dementia and aging and mental health, as well as my spiritual practice, I can give you five reasons to keep up with something you’re not good at.

  1. Learning something new improves brain health: Like any other part of our body, the brain gets stronger when we stretch, extend and expand. Doing something we are good at maintains the brain cells we have, and learning something new creates new connections and pathways. It involves many different parts of the brain and that creates more connections. It improves our ability to remain present and aware versus slipping into autopilot and subliminal processing.

Shifting focus from output to process: Most of the time we are engaged in high-stakes or output-oriented activities. Engaging in something we are not good at slows us down. It improves our focus. As a means of motivating ourselves to keep going, we start noticing the little improvements. This ability to celebrate little wins is crucial in finding satisfaction. It compels us to acknowledge ourselves and our process even when the output does not match our hopes.

I find that playing the ukulele is making me more flexible mentally. For instance, I was rigid and perfectionist in my writing. If I noticed a typo two sentences above, I would erase everything in between to change that mistake. My music teacher, a young man, reminds me repeatedly to go to the next chord if I miss something. I have started seeing that when I write. Most of the time, I am able to take my cursor to change the error instead of erasing the whole thing.

Reducing stress and boosting mental health: When we are practicing, we need all our senses and process to focus on that. It diverts our energy into something different and helps our nervous system decompress from things that keep us occupied and in a heightened or low mood. As we improve, we feel a sense of confidence and accomplishment, even though it is not our focus. While this will not be a constant state, it leads to an overall sense of well-being.

I have seen this working beautifully in my work with people living with Young Onset Dementia. Our program was meant to engage them meaningfully. We did cooking, dancing, and art on a consistent basis. It improved their sense of wellness.

  1. Practicing compassion and playfulness: We know that it is important to be compassionate and lighthearted in our life. Yet, our minds have the tendency to only want to do the things we are good at because that is what feels good to us. While feeling good is important, it leaves little to no space to practice other skills like compassion and play. When we continue the path with something we are not good at, we have multiple opportunities to practice softness, gentleness, and lightheartedness. It does not mean we bypass the frustration, rather that we meet it with validation, support and encouragement.
  2. Spiritual growth: One of the three aspects of our attachments is our “goodness.” Goodness does not only mean character, it also includes our sense of superiority. We are always in comparison with others; combined with our need to only engage in things we can be successful in perpetuates our ego. We do not learn enough to cope with disappointment and challenges adequately. Learning a tough skill allows us to create a safe space to practice being skillfully disappointed. It is also a great reminder that we are not perfect and we are not required to be on our journey to liberation and eternal happiness.

To embark on this process, we need to be clear that we are choosing something challenging. The goal is not to perform for others or produce, rather it is to grow holistically as a human. We have to be clear on our values, and think of ways in which we will remind ourselves that this process is about being intentional.

Once our intention is clear, it is easier to stay the course. Our motivation is different. The skill is NOT the goal, rather a means to the noblest of all goals - liberation. This is the way in which we traverse samsara, with a nirvana mind.