The guitar bested me the first time around. It seemed so innocent a thing on the music store shelf, but at home the discordant wooden torture apparatus required me to twist my fingers into balloon animals and press the fleshy nubs into cheese slicers, and it didn’t even make music. In my frustration I launched upon myself a deluge of doubt, self-criticism and defeatism so thorough that I never touched the thing again. I really didn’t know how to be bad at something. That was fifteen years ago.
All my young adult life I focused on my strengths and avoided my weaknesses. I believed you either had talent or you didn’t. If you picked up a digit-crippling noise box and it felt like Nightmare on Finger Street–well, sorry Bud, you just don’t have what it takes. So why bother? But in my thirties a passion for ping pong drew me out of my strengths and into my weaknesses. I was obsessed with the sport, and that propelled me through the initial discomfort of being really, really, really bad at something. I discovered the delight of seeing improvement over time, of the moment you realize an action that once seemed impossible is now automatic.
Ping pong got the ball rolling. I began to timidly try new things, then boldly. My world expanded. When you push yourself out of your comfort zone, the zone of comfort expands. And not just in the new territory, but also in adjacent territory. What once seemed out of reach is now there for the expanding into. Which brings me back to guitar.
I picked up an acoustic widowmaker last week and pressed my silky-smooth nose-pickers into the assassin’s wires, and I loved it. I’ve practiced a little each day. Just two basic chords. My fingers are no better off than a chicken’s fingers, but each day the positions come quicker and the sounds get better. When I strum out a not-half-bad chord, it feels wonderful. I can make noise. That is deeply satisfying. Today I know how to be bad at something.