It’s Great To Suck At Something
Over the past 15 years, surfing has become a kind of obsession for me. I surf eight months a year. I travel to surf destinations for family vacations and seek (forgiving) waves in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. I have spent thousands of dollars on boards of all sizes and shapes.
And yet — I suck at it. In the sport of (Hawaiian) kings, I’m a jester. In surfing parlance, a “kook.” I fall and flail. I get hit on the head by my own board. I run out of breath when held down by a four-foot wave. I wimp out when the waves get overhead and I paddle back to shore. When I do catch a wave, I’m rarely graceful. On those rare occasions when I manage a decent drop, turn and trim, I usually blow it by celebrating with a fist pump or a hoot.
Once, I actually cried tears of joy over what any observer would have thought a so-so performance on a so-so wave. Yes, I was moved to tears by mediocrity.
So why continue? Why pursue something I’ll never be good at?
Because it’s great to suck at something.
When people hear that I surf, I get a knowing nod of awesomeness from the terra firma-bound. I know what they’re picturing: me on a thruster, carving up and down a wave face until I casually kick out the back to paddle out to the line up for another. The truth is that most surfers don’t come close to what we see in highlight videos. But pretty’s not the point. The point is the patience and perseverance it requires to get back on the board and try again. After a surf instructor pushed me into my first wave, it took me five years to catch one on my own.
When I do catch a wave and feel the glide, I’ll hold onto that feeling for hours, days or even weeks. I’m hooked on the pursuit of those moments, however elusive they may be. But it’s not the momentary high that has sustained me. In the process of trying to attain a few moments of bliss, I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile. And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.
My friend Andy Martin is a Cambridge don of French literature. He has surfed the world over. But about his status as a surfer, he tells me, “I am called a surfer only at Cambridge.” In his mind, he sucks, but he’s O.K. with that. That being O.K. is the humility that comes only with sucking and persevering.
The notion of sucking at something flies in the face of the overhyped notion of perfectionism. The lie of perfectionism goes something like this: “If I fail, it’s only because I seek perfection.” Or “I can never finish anything because I’m a perfectionist.” Since the perfectionist will settle for nothing less, she is left with nothing.
Self-knowledge here is key. No one ever tells you how much you suck at something. Unless you have a mean boss, an abusive parent or a malicious friend, most people are happy to help us maintain the delusion that our efforts are not in vain. No, we cannot count on people around us to let us know how much we suck. It is far more acceptable to compliment than to criticize. So the onus is on us as individuals to admit to ourselves how much we suck at something. And then do it anyway.
By taking off the pressure of having to excel at or master an activity, we allow ourselves to live in the moment. You might think this sounds simple enough, but living in the present is also something most of us suck at.
Think about how focused you become when you’re presented with something totally new to accomplish. Now, what happens when that task is no longer new but still taps into intense focus because we haven’t yet mastered it? You’re a novice, an amateur, a kook. You suck at it. Some might think your persistence moronic. I like to think of it as meditative and full of promise. In the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” When I surf, I live in the possibility.
Or, as the great father of surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, wisely advised: “Be patient. Wave come. Wave always come.”
But, then what’s going to happen?
As my friend Michael Scott Moore wrote in his book, “Sweetness and Blood,” “When a surfer takes off on a wave, there are two possible results.” Fairly predictably for me, the outcome is an epic fail. Yet, I remain hopeful that this time will be better than the last.
Maybe sucking at something where the stakes are low can lead us to a better place. Maybe it could be a kind of a medicine for the epidemic cocksureness in our culture. Seeing ourselves repeatedly doing something we suck at — no matter how trivial — might make us a bit more sympathetic to how hard so many things really are: trying to navigate health issues, listening to our neighbors, improving the economy or mitigating relations with hostile nations.
By exposing ourselves to the experience of trying and failing we might develop more empathy. If we succeed in shifting from snap judgments to patience, maybe we could be a little more helpful to one another — and a whole lot more understanding.
If we accept our failures and persevere nonetheless, we might provide a respite from the imperative to succeed and instead find acceptance in trying. Failing is O.K. Better still, isn’t it a relief?
There’ll always be another chance. And another after that, trust me. Be patient. Waves come. Waves always come.