When I was a child, I took rollerblading lessons. I hated the discomfort of not being able to naturally skate around like people who had been skating for a long time. I just wanted to be able to skate, but instead, I clutched onto the rail, unless the instructor insisted that I let go. When I did let go, I would take baby steps, not wanting to risk the humiliation of screwing up. Before I learned to skate, I quit taking lessons.
This is a true story, but also a metaphor for how I tend to approach things that I’m bad at—which is to say, I don’t.
With essential tasks or skills, I will push myself to succeed because I view it as important. But with hobbies, I’ve always given up on things that I was not good at right away. I know this is illogical (and the reason I don’t have a long list of hobbies, because people tend to be naturally good at a limited number of things!). Theoretically, I understand that learning something takes time and effort, and being bad at something in the beginning doesn’t mean that I will be bad at it forever. But knowing this has rarely motivated me to keep trying.
As a child, I danced. I played basketball. I tried playing guitar. I went ice skating. I tried various crafts. I did theater. I sang in the choir. I took driving lessons but never got a license. I didn’t continue doing any of these things, because I was not instantly good at them. In middle school P.E. class, we had to do archery. Anticipating that I’d be bad at it, I avoided trying it for a whole week without the teachers noticing.
Recently, I’ve tried to break this trend. I know learning is a process. I know failure comes before success. But that didn’t stop me from quitting my dance fitness class last year after not being able to keep up with the people who had been attending for months. After signing up and paying for a punch needle embroidery class a few months ago, I almost didn’t attend, for fear of failing. I did end up dragging myself to the class, but when the instructor asked to see my work, it was like I was suddenly in middle school again. “Mine is really bad. I need to fix it,” I told her, not wanting to show her. She could’ve helped me improve, but I didn’t want her, my instructor, to know that I, a beginner, was not a “natural.”
Clearly, I was holding myself to a ridiculous standard, thereby inhibiting my ability to learn. After all, though studies suggest that genetic factors do play a role in the skills people acquire, those skills and abilities are not 100 percent natural—in order to become amazing at something, training is necessary, according to Scientific American.
Flash forward a few months, and I’m under mandatory quarantine in my apartment in China. This is after I already self-isolated in the United States for two weeks, meaning I’ve been at home for approximately a month. With so much free time, I had already done enough of the things I’m good at within the first few days. I had to try something new—and within the confines of my apartment, no one would see me fail.
Since I can’t go outside right now, I’ve searched for some different workouts on YouTube. I’ve now tried Zumba, HIIT, belly dancing and even Bollywood dancing. I surely look like an amateur, but no one can see me. I can’t even see myself.
To help me deal with my anxiety, which has been off the charts during this pandemic, I searched for some meditation videos on YouTube. This eventually led to my giving yoga a second chance. A few months ago, I had gone to a yoga class for the first time, and the instructor kept telling me that I was clearly in my own head. She was trying to help me, but all I could think was: I’m bad at yoga. But now, yoga has become a part of my daily routine.
I’ve also been studying Mandarin Chinese for several years, but I don’t practice it enough because, you guessed it, I feel like I’m not very good at it. I’m now studying daily. I used to be afraid to answer my phone and have to speak Chinese, but I’ve finally started answering. Baby steps, right?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve stuck with these things for two reasons: I feel like I have the time, and I feel like I’m in a safe space to try and fail. But in the process, I’ve also realized that I have always had time to learn, to try and fail—I just wasn’t taking advantage of it. I might not have time for punch needle embroidery and Bollywood dance every day, but if I actually commit to something, I can make time for it.
I’ve also realized that my apartment is not the only safe space for practicing. Everyone starts somewhere. Most people are not waiting for me to fail. Most people are not paying attention to me at all—they have their own lives to lead.
When my quarantine is over, I will go outside, and hopefully life will go back to some kind of normal. But I also want to continue to push myself to try new things as if I’m alone within the confines of my apartment. It doesn’t matter whether or not people are watching. I’m doing these things for myself, at my own pace, in my own way. And I’ve finally realized that life’s too short for me to be held back by my insecurities and fears. It’s time for me to let go of the rail, fall down, and get back up again.