Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Freedom to be Bad at Things

Tim Wu:
I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. . . .

In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment. 
This reminded me of a bit I remember from a Renaissance book of manners, I think Castigleone's The Courtier. The author said that while it is fine to write poetry for yourself, you must keep it secret until some of your most trusted friends have seen it and agreed that it would not hurt your reputation if it became public.

So I would say that while our own high expectations are one reason why we don't pursue things we are bad at, the fear of being mocked by others is also a factor.


JustPeachy said...

Fear of being mocked is no small thing these days: the potential for your bad singing, painting, poetry, etc. to be broadcast over the internet and mocked by the whole dang world is not trivial.

But... there's also some blame for mass media, and the rise of, for lack of a better term, performative art, as opposed to participatory art.

Nobody sings anymore. This happened in my lifetime: I saw it. My childhood church had a huge choir, and the whole congregation took up their hymnals and sang with them. Quite a lot of those folks could read music. They'd learned as children, in school, in band, in kids' choir workshops and summer camps, and piano lessons. These days... piano lessons are for the rich. Hardly anyone engages in corporate singing, outside of church-- and fewer and fewer attend church regularly. Even there, I watched things go from 100% corporate singing, to a mix of the congregation singing the same round of 8-10 well-known hymns in rotation, a soloist singing something "contemporary" and maybe the choir doing a couple of songs alone.

We're so saturated with the very best vocalists who can be coached and processed to perfection through post-production filters... who can help but feel inferior? None of us can sound like that. Why bother? I think we can add widespread musical illiteracy there. Plenty of folks have taught themselves to play guitar, and it's easier than ever now, with tons of free online video lessons. But how many people bother, when even professional musicians hardly bother with actual instrumentation?

I've lately taken up Byzantine chant. I'm terrible at it, and it's obviously impossible. But someone had to do it, and I was the only person under 50 at our church who could read music (six years of clarinet in the school band... who knew that would turn out to be a key skill?), so I was drafted. I've learned a lot, and it's been extremely rewarding. Maybe it'll help stave off senility for a couple extra years.

Pursue something beautiful, even if you're bad at it!

Michael said...

"The perfect is the enemy of the good."

pootrsox said...

I quilt-- or more accurately I piece quilt tops, then "quilt by checkbook," paying someone else to machine quilt them on their fancy computerized long-arm machine.

When I started, I made the decision that I would simply do my best-- however mediocre it might be-- and take joy in the process, and in the gifting of simple quilted items given for practical, not artistic, purposes.

I have never entered a juried show, only the "everyone bring some stuff to hang up" displays. If my baby quilts are happily played on, pee'd on, pooh'd on, puked on, dragged around as a "bankie," and eventually totally worn out, that is my reward, my blue ribbon, my accolades.

I have yet to make a "perfect" quilt, though I've made some very attractive ones. Were I to wait until I could make a perfect one, I'd still be sitting at a 30 year old piece of junk machine with my first pieces of fabric.