Reflections on Being the Worst:
by H. Bradford
I had a fair number of New Year’s Resolutions. Several of them involved taking up some old, neglected hobbies. A few of them involved trying new hobbies. Many of my old hobbies went to the wayside while I was in graduate school in Mankato and at St. Scholastica. While I enjoy these hobbies, I am actually pretty terrible at them. Thus, I have had to cope with being the worst. Being the worst is a pretty demoralizing experience. I suppose this is why most people avoid things they are bad at. This is the story of me being terrible at several hobbies this year.
I grew up in a small town, so I didn’t play soccer until I was 15. After my parents divorced, I moved to a larger school. This offered me many opportunities to try out new activities that were unavailable at my rural school. One of these activities was soccer. I am not sure why I wanted to play soccer, but I remember joining the team for the two week tryout period in early August. It was an extremely hot summer that year, so I vividly remember our long practices in 100 degree heat. Despite the heat, I felt pretty cool. My mother bought me new cleats and pads. We were low income, so this meant a lot to me. I tried really hard and actually made the varsity soccer team. I think the two coaches probably felt sorry for me or something. Surely it was a mistake, since whatever hope they placed in me was quickly dashed during my first few games. After that, I was an all star bench warmer.
As an adult, I learned that Duluth has a recreational soccer league. Thus, I started playing soccer again in 2009. I played for about two fall seasons. At that time, there were six women’s recreational teams. I was pretty mediocre, but there were many people of varying athletic abilities, so I didn’t feel embarrassed. I found the experience to be empowering, since it was an example of women of various ages, shapes, and sizes working together and supporting one another. Rather than feel insecure about my body, playing soccer made me feel strong, fast, or athletic (despite the evidence to the contrary from my actual playing ability). I think I felt this way since playing involved pushing my body to work harder than normal. I stopped playing due to time constraints and did not resume the league until this fall.
When I rejoined the league this fall, some things had changed. Firstly, there were only two teams. This meant that we played the same team each week. Secondly, the players were a lot better and a lot less mixed in ability. The other team seemed to be pretty competitive, which made me feel less like the game was about having fun and supporting each other. In the context of the rest of the players, I was pretty awful. I felt embarrassed. Players complained how out of shape they were. After all, they hadn’t done any running since their last marathon (a few months ago)! I also felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt that if I was terrible, it let them down. This caused me some anxiety. I am not sure if it was even fun. After each game, I did feel somewhat accomplished. I felt accomplished because I played the whole game (which is a lot of running…we did not have enough players for subs). I felt accomplished because I overcame my fear of failure. I felt accomplished because I only made a few mistakes. My teammates never made me feel bad or that I had failed them. They gave me helpful tips and praised me when I hustled or got the ball away from someone. I felt proud to wear cleats and a uniform, so…I felt accomplished for trying to be an athlete. I guess this was enough to get me through the season. I plan on signing up again next fall.
(Playing soccer with some friends…not sure why Adam is grabbing Carl’s leg and a dog at the same time…)
I started taking adult ballet lessons when I was in my early 20s. Like soccer, I regretted that because I grew up in a small town, I didn’t have access to a variety of dance classes. I took tap dance classes in elementary school and was terrible. But, I decided in my early 20s that I had always wanted to try ballet. So, I took a class with some older teens. It was embarrassing, but I liked it well enough. I did this for a while, but later joined an adult ballet class when I found a studio that offered them. The adult ballet classes that I tried were always pretty simple. We spent most of the time learning basics, focusing on conditioning, and doing barre work. There was no expectation that anyone would be that great at the classes, since we were all adults doing ballet for fitness and fun. I liked these classes since they helped with my posture (I have a crooked spine) and they made me feel graceful. I stopped taking adult ballet classes in about 2011 when I moved to Mankato for graduate school.
One of my goals this year was to try ballet again. I started in September. The studio that I attended back in 2011 no longer offered adult classes. They had adult/teen hybrid classes. Oh well. I have found that this class was different. For one, it is pretty mortifying doing ballet with teens (there are two other adults in the class, but the rest are teens). These teens have been doing dance for a long time, so they are not novices. Secondly, this class is not focused on barre work and conditioning. A very large portion of the class entails demonstrating various moves or techniques…one by one…in front of everyone!! This is a nightmare. Each week, I dread this part of the class. Each session, I am last in line. I watch carefully. I practice while in line. I can envision the mechanics of the move. Then…it is my turn and…I inevitably fail miserably. When the moment comes, I find that my body moves like a bag of sand. The sand bag is the weight of my embarrassment.
I am going to stay positive. For one, this class actually will perform in the spring. In my prior classes, there was never an option for performance. This would be a unique milestone in my life. Secondly, because I make a fool of myself each week…I am less concerned about dancing in front of others. For instance, at a staff x-mas party, we all did a funny dance to show off our individual Christmas sweaters. Each of the staff were absolutely mortified to dance in front of others (even in the context of a silly contest). I danced in front of them with zeal. I even did my silly, clumsy ballet moves. I just didn’t care. The same was true when I visited Africa this summer. We had two opportunities to participate in traditional dances. In one episode, I was the only person to volunteered to dance. In the other, I was one of just a handful. Again, I didn’t feel all that foolish. People generally fear dancing in front of other people. So, while I fear dancing in front of others in my class, I find that I am less reserved in other contexts because I have at least some dancing experience. The truth is, I like dancing. I might be bad at it, but it can be fun. Finally, because the class is harder…it will raise the “barre” on my ballet skills.
(This is me before I left for ballet class. I am 100% sure that I am the best revolutionary socialist ballerina in my class.)
You might notice a trend here. Once again, in my early 20s I took up the violin. Once again, this is a hobby I took up because I had always wanted to play. But, because I grew up in a small town, we didn’t have a symphonic band or opportunity for lessons. Violin was hard. I was pretty low income in my early 20s, so I struggled to afford the instrument, the lessons, and the strings I kept breaking. The monstrous challenge of learning the violin seemed to be a metaphor for the misery of my futile aspirations. If I had practiced and kept it up all those years, maybe I wouldn’t be half bad. Instead, I have taken lessons sporadically, learning the violin at a snail’s pace with no real hope of ever being half-way competent at the instrument. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to once again take up the challenge. This resolution was forgotten for most of the year.
This month, I have actually put some effort into practicing. It was painful, but each day, songs start to come together. I make fewer mistakes. I don’t have the time or money for lessons, but if I could just practice a few times a week…for even 15 minutes at a time, I think I could progress again. I have experienced some progress already. That feels good. It frustrates me, since I meet so many people who have played violin for decades. They played in school or in college. They were first chair. And me, I play in my own room…to myself…with little musical talent. It is demoralizing. I am a shadow of the person I wish I was. But, I enjoy it. I enjoy when I can make a sound that approximates something pleasant. I have made progress over time.
One of my biggest fears was going to the Russian table. The Russian Table meets once a week at Sir Ben’s. The group gathers to speak in Russian to one another. Attending the Russian table was on my list of resolutions, but I was too afraid to go. I knew that it would not go well. I knew I would look like an idiot.
For some background information, I took about two years of Russian while at CSS. But, my last Russian class was a decade ago. I was not a star student at Russian. The A’s that I earned were hard won. I have not studied Russian at all since then. I did travel to Eastern Europe and to Ukraine and Belarus, which at least refreshed my memory to Russian (or Slavic languages in general) in recent years. And, all those years Russian was on my mind like a lost love. I really do like the language, culture, history, and literature. But, the longing to learn again has not been greater than my fear of looking like a fool.
Well, I did it. Last Friday I went to the Russian Table. I had anxiety. I had to look at some inspirational websites about overcoming fear in order to go. But, I went. And, it was just as bad as I imagined! I had prepared some things to speak about, but when I brought up my first topic (New Year’s resolutions), no one showed any interest. I was simply told that it was not a Russian tradition, and the conversation moved on. Yep. So I sat there. I tried to speak. I picked up some words and a few things here and there. But the whole thing was a train wreck. Or, perhaps it was more like a fast moving train that left me behind. I was left to watch the train in the distance. A piece of toilet paper fluttered in the wind. It was stuck to the track by a piece of poop…so unkindly deposited by the train as it hurried away with its more capable passengers.
Okay. The people who attended were fairly dedicated students. One woman complained that she was rusty as she had not studied since the three hours she had devoted to her studies a few days ago. It was like the soccer player who complained how out of shape she was (since running the marathon). But, the people were supportive. They offered some resources and told me to return. They didn’t ridicule me. They let me listen and explained some words to me.
I have to take this in baby steps. I do not have three hours to devote to studying Russian. I could perhaps devote 10 minutes a day or try to learn a few new words each week. Some people fly. Some people crawl. I will crawl. Perhaps it is good enough just to attend. Maybe any attempt at all whatsoever makes me better off. Still, it is hard being the worst. It is hard being the stupid one. I think just finding the courage to attend at all is the best I can do for now.
(This is a photo from my 2006 visit to Russia. That was the last time that I seriously studied Russian…until attending the Russian Table and trying to study again recently).
I decided that this year I would run my first 5k. I’ve been running off and on for about two years. I don’t run enough to become that great at it, but generally can run a few miles slowly. I ran the Pride 5k. I had a lot of fun. I even wore a costume. But, I felt sick that day (with a sore throat). I also got lost on my way back (adding some distance). As such, it probably comes as no surprise that I was the worst runner! Hurray for me!
I also ran the Spooktacular 5k in Superior. I was in the middle in this run (even though I had not run since the Pride 5k a month prior). That felt pretty good! Yep, and I haven’t run since. Oops. Well, I was too busy bicycling during the rest of the fall.
My goal for next year is to do three 5ks. I don’t have a time goal, but I would like to beat my previous times. I will have to get busy again (which means running indoors). I will probably have to try to be a little more consistent about running if I want to improve.
Unlike the other things on the list, I don’t feel as bad if I can’t run well. I feel pretty good if I can run a few miles…period. But, I am sure it would feel better to… not be the last person next year when I run the Pride 5k.
It is hard to be terrible at something. It is demoralizing. It is embarrassing. It makes me angry at myself. I feel upset that I am not the person I wish I was. In a perfect universe, there is a version of myself who excels at everything she tries. She is confident and fearless. Everything looks effortless. But, that person is not me. It will never be me. The person who I am is reminded often of her failings.
I probably won’t be great at Russian, violin, running, ballet, or any number of hobbies that I try. I can be better than I currently am. I can learn to savor the small morsels of progress that I make. I can enjoy these things even if I am not good at them. In the big picture, I can say that I am more talented than most at doing things that I am bad at. Certainly, there are things I am good at! I do have some talents. But, I do like the challenge of trying new things, even if I fail at them. I can take pride in running a few miles or playing an entire soccer game. I can feel proud of stringing some words together in Russian or playing through a song on the violin. My worst is someone else’s best. My worst is an accomplishment. I should be thankful that I have the physical and mental wherewithal to even try these activities. I am also thankful that I have enough spare time to pursue these activities, even with modest attention. Many women my age are too busy raising kids, working multiple jobs, caring for others, etc. for hobbies. Finally, fear limits the possibility of life. One of my biggest fears is failure. Hobbies are pretty low stakes. If I fail at a hobby, my life will not be diminished in any way. It isn’t like failing a class in school or failing to perform at a job. Therefore, I don’t have anything to fear since the only consequence of my failure is the blow to my self esteem or the deepening realization that I will never be that fantasy version of myself. But, I won’t be the fantasy version of myself by NOT trying either. So, that is how I frame it and survive being the worst.