The joys of incompetence

"Anything worth doing is worth doing badly", an old friend used to say when we were 18.

But a decade later, when we'd assumed the mantle of professional life, most of those ambitious, somewhat competitve friends and I avoided trying anything at which we weren't already pretty good. So we'd say "I can't dance/fly fish/make pastry/shoot pool".

That attitude, the prizing of the Competent Self, held constant for our working years. It's not that we didn't continue to learn, but we played to our talents. Now, released from what another friend called his "achievement disorder", we've begun to realize that being incompetent is no crime: lives don't depend on whether your origami frog looks like a crumpled wad. 

The pleasure of incompetence first requires being able to laugh at my ineptness. In fact, it's often more fun than proficiency.

One current example of that effect is two anglophones speaking terrible French to one another. Our mangled syntax jars francophones and stresses their patience after two minutes. Since so many speak fluent English in Montréal, they can't wait to switch.

But anglos determined to practice will happily spend an hour or two engrossed in conversation, bashing their way through the subjuncif and plus-que-parfait; understanding each other perfectly, freed from the paralyzing self-criticism that guts them in front of a native speaker. We continue even if murdering the terminisations, infused with the giddy pride of "Look at us, speaking another language!"

Photo: Kino Lorber
Same with my new hobby, painting. When my Competent Self takes over, I'm frustrated by errors, stiffness, limited technique. I ask my teacher, "Are you sure Gerhard Richter started this way?" 

Mom's novice artist friends presented lumpy oil-painted bouquets that embarrassed me at 30. (Not Mom, who displayed them with affection.) Now I'm making them! When Beginner Self speaks, it says, "So what? The world can always accommodate another inept still life."

I received a gift from Bernard, boxes of art supplies left to him by his friend, Michel. While sifting through these, the man came back to life. He was a physician–his copybooks were from the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He was meticulous, everything organized neatly. Michel liked to paint barns and country houses; books on the subject were in the bags.

He attempted large works; the bigger brushes show far more wear than the fine:

Several sets of watercolour paints were untouched:

Books on using various media were stored with sketchbooks and papers:

What moved me most was his palette, a slice of burled maple. In it, I felt his presence and a whisper of encouragement. A cigarette burn; a single grey hair stuck in an ochre dab.

How many years had I spent in a straightjacket of excellence? Finally, at 65, I'm bashing away, willing to be less skilled than ever, but curious and engrossed. I want to learn so many things, and am not particularly concerned that there isn't time left for mastery.

Just to begin: that feels like enough.


Kristien62 said…
Your last line sums how I view my retirement. I am making up for lost time and savoring the experience. My guitar playing is terrible, my initial lessons fraught with anxiety because I wasn't perfect right away. I nearly quit until I realized that I wasn't being graded, didn't need to compete. This endeavor was all mine. The pure joy of picking out old Beatles tunes and the anticipation that I might someday be able to play an entire Leonard Cohen melody is the prize. Will there be time? Does it really matter?
Susan B said…
I think begin a beginner at something is what keeps our minds young. I have several friends who are keen on The Artist's Way, and of what they've shared with me, my favorite lesson is "give yourself permission to create bad art." The pictures of your inherited art supplies are so evocative, especially the palette.
Susan said…
I think those of you who have been in the business world are now seeing what some of us who have spent most of our adult lives "working in our homes" have had the joy to experience all along. I think it is wonderful to have the time to explore new things. It really is a luxury.
cgk said…
Perfect really is the enemy of good.

It's a wonderful thing to drift through life with pursuits in tow, dropping some and gaining others along the way.

Susan, I agree, there is no greater luxury than time to oneself.
materfamilias said…
I've always enjoyed playing amateur, Jill-of-all-trades, Master-of-none, and I've used your friend's expression often. (I echo what Susan says -- during the years I worked at home, I had a chance to try out a number of new "skills," through courses, or learning with friends, or just going at it. I really miss that time and look forward to retirement for more of it.)
But until a few years ago, I kept Art (yes, in my mind it had an intimidating capital A) firmly at arm's length as something I couldn't do. But when my artist friend kept offering her Illustrated Journal class, only 5 houses away from me, I started thinking "Why can't I? It's just for me, no one else has to see it?" And what joy that has brought me, although I recognize quite clearly the limitations of my resulting efforts.
Cornelia said…
To my mind there is a difference between an incompetence when wanting to learn something that you think you might enjoy as opposed to something you think you might dread. I was a most incompetent bread baker when I first started out, but stuck to it, hockey pucks be damned. not ever no matter. However no amount of ballroom dancing lessons will make me anything less than a klutz.
Fiona said…
As a fellow "anglo" lost in Quebec ... I recognised myself in your language endeavours ... made me giggle!
Love your enthusiasm!
I gave myself permission to paint even though I knew in my heart that I was not going to be remarkable. There is immense joy in this freedom.
Would love to see what you are creating....your palette is a work of art.
LPC said…
Great to know there's hope. I'm still in the Competent Self (great phrase) phase. Must. Be. Excellent. So the decade ahead should be fun!
Northmoon said…
Such a wonderful post! I struggle with my perfectionist self regularly, at least now I recognise it. A great saying I try to keep in mind "If we gave up after falling down once we'd all still be crawling."

I look forward to some play time in my retirement years, coming up soon.
MJ said…
I wholeheartedly second your willingness to try something new. I'm doing the same thing with music, and it's a wonderful addition to my life even though I'm not perfect or even nearly as good as I'd like to be. (As for speaking French, Canadian francophones shouldn't be too snooty, lest someone from France be listening to them....)
Anonymous said…
This, as usual, is a wonderful topic. We seem to be fixated on the results of our endeavours rather than on the joy found in the process. As a sewist, I try, somewhat unsuccessfully, to keep my Competent Self in line and to let my creative self shine through; to enjoy sewing and not to obsess about the perfection of the finished garment. Easier said than done.

Anonymous said…
What a lovely, lovely post. Too bad we don't learn this *earlier* in life!
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: Taking up an instrument is something several of my newly-retired friends have done, usually returning to an instrument abandoned after childhood or teens. Wonderful!

une femme: I just hated Julia Cameron's book when I read it a decade or so ago, I found it so self-absorbed, and could never get the "morning pages" exercise to feel right for me. But suspect I would be more open to its message now. Many love it.

Susan: Some of us who "worked at home" had time to explore pastimes, and others did not, or had much less discretionary time- as that effort, just like that of the workplace, can greatly vary.

cgk: Thanks for the reminder that it is also freeing to be a dilettante.

materfamilias: And I am so glad you did, as I find the glimpses of your sketches to be such a vivid expansion of your writing.

Cornelia: Since we can, as cgk said, pick up and drop pursuits, we can give ourselves permission to abandon or not force what's not working.

Fiona; After nearly 2.5 years of living in Montréal, today was the first day anyone was even remotely mean, and it came from an elderly man who was really nasty. Oh well, bound to happen. Everyone else has been patient and supportive.

hostess: I never realized how much release and transport there was in a hobby before.

LPC: Bet you a nickel you get there, as I have been thinking about your recent posts.

Northmoon: You made me think. I still have perfectionistic areas, like cooking, and seem to free up most when trying something totally new.

MJ: It's not that they're snooty, it's that listening to is •work•, and many times it's just more efficient for them to switch to English, especially here, where so many people are bilingual.

Anon@3:34: Again, your comments help me to clarify my limits. After producing several very expensive "wadders" I stepped away from the sewing machine in my late 30s. Somehow I felt I'd lost my mojo. Maybe I should try again, very cautiously. Good for you.

Anon@4:28: Some people do seem to be fearless, all their lives, and not feel the pressure to be expert. Makes me think about messages we pass on to our children or grandchildren.
Anonymous said…
What a lovely post! You are speaking to me, a newly fledged empty nester. I left full time work about 7 years ago, but did some part time work as well as caregiving for my mother (and my teenagers!). But now Mom is gone (permanently) and the kids are gone (at college). So what to do?

I've resumed going to Pilates classes, partly to help with a creaky neck, the beginnings of bone loss, and that delightful middle-aged sag! Next month will start volunteering at Dress for Success. But also thinking about other options, while also realizing how fortunate I am to have the time to do whatever I want, plus the resources to afford it.

I will probably take up golf, since my husband plays all the time, and I picture us taking golfing vacations when he retires. But what about a language class? It's always bothered me that I'm mostly monolingual, except for some creaky Spanish. Cooking classes? Quilting? Piano lessons? I took piano as a child, didn't practice, & my teacher fired me!

And for all those who might think it's too late to take up a new pursuit, I offer my favorite Uncle Pete: he's English, the 2nd husband of my Michigan/Texas auntie, and is a delightfully lively gent. My auntie asked him what he might like for his most recent birthday (his 86th). He ventured that he'd always wanted to learn to play the guitar. Lo & behold, she borrowed a guitar & signed him up for lessons! She told me she's not seeing much improvement as yet; I told her that wasn't really the point! They are my old age role models!

---Jill Ann
Duchesse said…
Jill Ann: I love this story and will think of Uncle Pete as I plod along. There are so many interests for which it is noever too late. A friend of mine past 70 is taking university classics courses to get the education he was not able to afford fifty years ago.
Beth said…
Yes yes yes! says this perfectionist. And I too am moved by that palette.
Susan said…
Duchesse, you are right as usual. My time for individual pursuits really began after our children were grown. I considered myself retired after our youngest went off to college.
Wendy said…
This post certainly hit home for me. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into these meaty posts. I'll be rereading this one and thinking on it for quite some time.
RoseAG said…
Practice makes perfect.
Admittedly some things aren't important enough to ever advance beyond incompetent; if an activity is important to you then you need to persist.

Usually it's a good idea to be aware. The incompetent golfer may want to arrive for a game with better players with plenty of balls, otherwise his/her lack of skill will turn into an annoyance for others -- greatly reducing the changes of a return engagement!
Duchesse said…
RoseAG: I agree, in a competitive sports situation like golf or tennis, playing near your level is important. You don't annoy the more skilled golfer, and don't feel discouraged because you can't keep up. But that's no reason not to play, and there are always other beginners.

A good club has ways of helping people connect as they move along the skill continuum, but few of us will ever reach perfection.

Unknown said…
Yep, all those years when I could have been drawing and writing poetry (as I wished to) but I wasn't "good enough" so I just worked more. In hindsight, not the way to handle things!
Unknown said…
The palette looks like a work of art in itself.

I wish you much pleasure in your endeavor as a beginning painter.

As for me, I am almost ready to let go of the competent self. One little step at a time.
Isn't there a danger in all this? Of course hobbies are not only pleasant but good for the brain.

But I do fear that this feeds into the societal disregard for people in creative pursuits, which are already very precarious in terms of income. For some people, writing and painting are our very lives, and do entail striving to do them as competently as possible.

And as for athletes, often competency means making it look easy, after years of practice.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: re "societal disregard for people in creative pursuits", I was describing only my amateur pursuits, and the joy of learning.

I made the greater portion of my income by writing; when paid for my skill, competence was essential. But as a Sunday painter, it is not.

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