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Do what you love — even if you’re bad at it

Skier kneeling in the snow on a ski slope. (Getty Images)
Skier kneeling in the snow on a ski slope. (Getty Images)

I'm terrible at fencing, and that’s a good thing.

My incompetence holds a lesson for young people whose mental health is fraying under the strain of our culture’s run-amok perfectionism, a scourge even before COVID-19 piled on trauma. And in this season of New Year’s resolutions, almost half of which will fail by February, grasping for the unattainable is a stressor best left resolved for the waste bin.

By all means, we should strive to be our best. But there’s a difference between reaching for your best and reaching for the impossible. (Just ask Kevin McCarthy, who learned he could have the U.S. House speakership or he could have his dignity; holding both could only occur in his own power-hungry mind.)

Back to my fencing career. Taking lessons years ago to satisfy a longtime curiosity, I made an easy pin cushion for my sparring partners. My parries too often didn’t parry, my lunges too often lunged a second behind my opponent’s skewering of me. My instructor suggested supplementing class with one-on-one lessons. I complied but bailed when he recommended even more practice, my schedule not affording the time. To this day, I still wouldn’t make the Olympic team. Or my high school’s, for that matter. I hope to return to lessons some day; for now, practice involves shadow-fencing invisible musketeers in the privacy of my home.

This perfectionism particularly sledgehammers young people’s peace of mind.

So what? Certain facets of life demand the pursuit of excellence: school work, profession, relationships. But we’ve paid dearly from our inability, as hyper-competitive, get-ahead Americans, to enjoy hobbies as rank amateurs who may never attain greatness. That has cost us “the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it.”

This perfectionism particularly sledgehammers young people’s peace of mind.

A study of 42,000 U.S., Canadian and British college students found that the percentage of perfectionists among them doubled between 1989 and 2016, which the researchers chalked up to cultural emphasis on “competitive individualism.” A 2016 meta-analysis of — literally — almost 300 studies correlated perfectionism with “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Vox reported, adding that, at minimum, “The constant stress of striving to be perfect can also leave people fatigued, stressed and suffering from headaches and insomnia.”

As an aside, going easy on one’s mistakes, done right, counterintuitively fosters self-improvement, according to the research. As a second aside, learning new things without the demands of excelling has another advantage. Ongoing research into the “anti-dementia lifestyle” probes whether mental exercise, including learning new things — combined with physical exertion, diet, and socializing — may stall Alzheimer’s march. The uncaged tiger of dementia stalks my late father’s family, having mauled him and his mother, so the potential vaccine of new learning resonates personally.

My fencing instructor would not have appreciated my contentment with mediocrity at his sport. If only he’d met my high school physics teacher, who, at the end of one semester, divulged my final grade as I passed him en route to lunch. Certain I’d barely survived with a humiliating D — or worse, hadn’t survived at all — I recall the elation at hearing I’d gotten a B. I was more adroit academically in the humanities; still, I was content with a B in a subject that I knew would have scant presence in my later life, and mastery of which didn’t define my sense of identity and self-worth.

My teacher seemed fine with the grade as well. (Perhaps he also expected me to flunk?) As a new year looms, we parents should remember that in many endeavors, there’s no shame in a B, whether for our kids or ourselves. President Kennedy summed up the ancient Greek definition of happiness as "the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” That dictum should guide our efforts in life’s most important areas. But not every exertion in life is equally important.

Nor is excellence the same thing as perfection, an insight taught in an unlikely setting that I still recall after 37 years. The 1985 Oscars paid memorable musical tribute to films revered as classics, yet which had lost out for Best Picture. Irene Cara, recently and sadly deceased, imbued a usually overstuffed ritual for celebrity-gazers with unaccustomed profundity, and belted out a lesson that’s worth repeating for the perfectionists among us: “Losers can be winners after all.”

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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