Passion and Mediocrity
As a teenager I fell in love with Chopin, and got it into my head that I had to learn how to play piano or life was not worth living. So I learned. For a late starter (I began at age 15), I wasn't bad. My teacher said that my ability to communicate emotion was ahead of my technique - which she meant as encouragement, since in her view the emotional part was more difficult. But I was terribly disappointed in myself. The more I practiced, the more aware I became of my technical limitations. I was sloppy, my fingers were not flexible enough, and I could not grasp music theory. For my 2nd year recital my teacher agreed to help me prepare two beautiful pieces that I had no business playing: Chopin's Prelude in E-minor and Tschaikovsky's Autumn. As far as "serious" music, these pieces are not difficult. But still to play them well required experience I did not have. I made no blatant mistakes. But I just didn't have sufficient control over my hands for the more nuanced passages and as I played in the recital I felt this acutely. The parents in the audience were thoroughly impressed by my performance. But after the recital one of the guest instructors approached and shook his finger at me: "Young lady, that was beautiful. But you should not be playing those pieces until your technique improves." And as he spoke, I knew that I did not have it in me: that I would never improve beyond mediocrity and would never be truly good enough for these pieces, no matter how much I slaved over the keyboard. I could use my ability to play "emotionally" to mask poor technique, but I would feel like a fraud. It was painful to be aware of this and my personality was not strong enough to withstand it. I quit piano within a year and took this as a lesson to save my energy for things I could truly excel at. Piano would never be one of them.
And, of course, neither would skating. No matter how much I loved watching the figure skaters on television and wished to be one of them in my younger years, it seemed stupid to waste my time to pursue something where my natural ability was so far below average. Yet now something's changed, and I find myself putting my self-esteem to the test at local skating rinks - shuffling around like an injured duckling as others around me execute graceful spins, jumps, and other displays of skill. The Co-Habitant tried to skate a week ago, and turned out to be a natural. Others too get on the ice for the first time in their lives, and after a half hour they are already gliding easily. Clearly I am a special case of ineptitude when it comes to skating. I am trying to decide how this makes me feel, and oddly it's not too bad. I am not even embarrassed, I just accept it. I also accept that even if I throw myself into learning how to skate with an obsessive passion, the end result of my dedication and hard work will be mediocrity, at best. Maybe I am older now and my ego can take it, because knowing this feels okay: I want to learn how to glide smoothly, how to turn, and how to stop without falling, and maybe if I am lucky, to eventually execute a leg lift like the girl in the picture. Those are my meager aspirations, and somehow they seem worthwhile despite the fact that I will likely have to work 10 times as hard as "normal" people to achieve them.
Watching the figure skaters practice at the Skating Club of Boston reminds me of my first visit to the Velodrome in Vienna. Seeing how unattainable the track cyclists' level of skill was for someone like me did not put me off road and fixed gear cycling. I realised then that I saw value in pursuing cycling as a sport independent of my ability to succeed in it. It was good for my character to have to work hard at something I loved, even if it yielded disappointing results, rather than to accept praise for being "talented" at things I was naturally good at. Talent, after all, is not an achievement - it is simply there.
My pursuit of cycling over the past 3 years - starting from a place where I didn't know how to turn other than using the handlebars and needed to have both feet flat on the ground while in the saddle - has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. This may seem ludicrous to those who know me in person in light of my other "achievements" and life experiences. Nevertheless, my passion for this activity that I am at best mediocre at, has taught me more about myself than I probably wanted to know. It broke down some of my defenses that kept me from understanding my true goals in life and it has made me more comfortable with myself overall.
It is hard to say whether, generally speaking, there is value in pursuing things we are bad at. Sure, we can make the argument that facing one's limitations and attempting to work through them - whether successfully or not - builds character. But we can also make the argument that it is more worthwhile to pursue the things we are good at, in the hopes of achieving true excellence - which could benefit not only ourselves, but in some cases society as a whole. In the end it is about the individual's life journey. During mine I found that passion and mediocrity can co-exist.