Why You Suck at Stuff, and How to Get Better

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Where, how, and why to play piano, bake sourdough, and learn Thai massage in spite — and because — of the fact that you’ll be very bad at it. At least at first.Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

The Cleveland Indians, Florence Foster Jenkins’s singing career, my attempts to drive stick: three examples of prolonged, profound failure. And yet, in an age when we can so fastidiously craft the public narratives of our perfect lives — who even believes someone’s immaculately curated Instagram account anymore? — I find myself increasingly inclined to talk about these sorts of instances of being bad at stuff. Not only that, but I feel more eager to try new things that I am likely to do very, very badly. For example: stop-motion animation. Despite an utter lack of visual aesthetic sense, I tried to teach myself this painstaking art recently, and eventually put a short, unwatchably herky-jerky video online, set to the admittedly ridiculous Queen song “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” I felt a rush of relief when it was removed from YouTube for copyright violation, but that was nowhere near the rush of satisfaction I got from the intensity and flow of working on the animation. I also dabbled in a form of Filipino knife fighting called Sayoc Kali, which seemed like it’d be a cool way to for me get some exercise. I had to give it up after realizing the idea of a real-life knife fight was causing a vasovagal response (that is, I almost fainted), but that’s also part of the reason I got such a charge from it. The process of failing was invigorating.

Science backs me up on this. A 2014 study in the journal PloS One revealed that practicing art enhances connections between different brain regions, possibly improving cognitive function and psychological resilience later in life (neural connectivity naturally declines as we age). The quality of the final result didn’t matter — the creating in itself is what researchers believe leads to improved brain function. Studies also bear out the phrase often quoted of Lincoln “slow to learn and slow to forget.” Simply put, we learn better when the learning is difficult. Maybe as a culture we’re becoming more aware of that idea. In fact, I’ve noticed more and more people sharing their boneheaded moves on social media — the unflattering selfies; the caption that was funny only to you. And obviously a big part of Snapchat’s appeal is that, because of its ephemerality, you’re emboldened to look bad. But the reward of doing so is not in the shared spectacle. It’s more like something the Buddha, who ultimately did okay for himself, said: Life is suffering. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. It just means that humanity’s default is the blooper, not the highlight. So why not go out and take that bread-baking or hip-hop-dancing class, or try your hand at knitting or ceramics or Thai massage? The worst that can happen is you’ll suck at it. —David Marchese

11 Things You’re Likely to Do Poorly (But Love Anyway)

By Lauren Schwartzberg

1. Ceramics

Why you’ll suck at it: “It’s hard to come up with a vision for what you want to create. Then there’s a phase where the gap between what you’d like to do and what you can do is enormous, because it’s so hard to learn the technique. I’m still in that phase. So you just have to enjoy the failure. You have to go in there knowing you might spend three hours making a pot and throw it all out. Usually, I’ll take one step forward and then completely screw it up. It takes hundreds of hours to translate what you want in your head to clay, and then it can still dry all lumpy. I keep at it after all this time because pottery is almost meditative for me. You have to focus so much on the task that whatever you’re doing at work or elsewhere just goes away. Even when I throw everything out, which is often, I still love that complete focus. It helps me relax.” —Sofia Arhall Bergendorff, director of global operations, partnerships, at Google

Where to learn it: BeginnerWheel, $400 for ten sessions at Chambers Pottery (153 Chambers St.).

Or YouTube it: “Throwing a Bowl” with ceramacist Emily Reason, author of Ceramics for Beginners.

Or Instagram it: Follow Tortus Copenhagen for tutorial videos from acclaimed potter Eric Landon.

2. Baking Bread

Why you’ll suck at it: “There’s a lot of steps and some finesse involved. You need to develop the correct ways to use your hands. A lot of people are interested in making a sourdough starter, and one pitfall is looking to a book or a set of instructions to give you the answers. Really, it takes an understanding of the living culture that makes bread rise, so you can’t follow a recipe; there’s too many factors involved with the environment that will affect the outcome of your sourdough. If for some reason the starter isn’t ripe, or is more ripe one day than the other, or if anything changes and you don’t understand what’s happening down below, you won’t be able to navigate that change. The thing is when you have a different outcome here, it’s a bit more disastrous than a steak. If a steak is a little more well done, you can eat it. If you mess up bread, it’s not pleasurable to eat. It’s frustrating, but you keep aiming for that finesse.” —Adam Leonti, executive chef at the Williamsburg Hotel and director of Brooklyn Bread Lab

Where to learn it: Bread for Beginners, $125 at Brooklyn Bread Lab (201 Moore St., Bushwick).

Or YouTube it: The Stretch and Fold Technique From Peter Reinhart,” a baker, teacher, and author.

3. Meditating

Why you’ll suck at it: “The act of just sitting is hard because you’re thinking and you’re supposed to not think, and it’s also overwhelming to sit alone with your thoughts. I started with five minutes because I wanted to see if I could get myself to sit down for five minutes, even if the entire time I thought about my to-do list. By the end of the year, I was able to sit for ten minutes, but for six, I was still thinking about my to-do list. They tell you to watch your thoughts like clouds, which is bullshit. The truth about meditating is that it’s a practice. I’m still not that great, but I keep at it; knowing that if I get really upset about something I can sit for ten minutes and collect myself is like magic. Sometimes it’s just the act of sitting down.”—Merav Fine, program manager and yoga teacher

Where to learn it: MNDFL 101, from $10 at MNDFL (10 E. 8th St.).

Or YouTube it: “Blissful Deep Relaxation,” a guided meditation.

Or download it: Insight Timer. If going it alone is too intimidating, this app, offering thousands of guided meditations, can connect you with users from around the world and track your practice with updated stats.

4. Painting

Why you’ll suck at it: “When I started painting, I was so final-product-focused. I took a class to learn what goes into making a great painting, but what I actually learned is that it’s not really about the painting; it’s about being willing to start over or erase something. You initially feel so protective of your work, but my professor would come over and scrape off parts of the painting and make me do it over. It taught me to be with the process and not have as much ambition about the final product. Likewise, it’s about getting over that second-guessing management voice in your head. More than the technical act of painting, I’ve worked on that the most.” —Ben Ratskoff, doctoral student at UCLA

Where to learn it: Beginner’s Painting 101, $399 for eight classes at the Art Studio (145 W. 96th St., Ste. 1B).

Or YouTube it:How to Paint a Simple Landscape in Watercolor.”

5. Giving massages

Why you’ll suck at it: “It’s about finding a balance between the other person’s comfort and the correct technique. When I started, I was concentrating so much on the actual sequence that I’d forget to pay attention to my client; if you tune in to them too much, you can lose the technique and sequence. But in the repetition, you find the balance.” —James Graber, dancer

Where to learn it: Basic Foundation Training: Supine and Prone, $555 at Thai Massage Sacred BodyWork (115 Wooster St., Ste. 2F).

Or YouTube it: “Ananda Apfelbaum Thai Massage.” Apfelbaum, who gives the above class, walks through the steps of a Thai foot massage.

6. Skateboarding

Why you’ll suck at it: “Working with your feet is harder than working with your hands. It’s using your body in a completely different way, and only then will you have board control. I first learned how to kick-flip while holding on to a gate, and then I learned how to kick-flip moving. For a whole summer I only had kick-flips, but I would slowly add on more tricks and then mix tricks together. To get there you have to fall a lot. A lot of people can’t deal with the pain. It’s not like other sports where you have a coach encouraging you to keep going, but it turned out that I met all my friends through skating. You’re experiencing your city and the streets in a way that not many other people can.” —Na-Kel Smith, professional skateboarder

Where to learn it: Skateyogi adult beginners, $30 per drop-in class at Skate Brooklyn (78 St. Marks Pl., Park Slope).

Or YouTube it:Show Me the Way,” the Transworld skate video that taught Smith his first tricks.

7. Playing piano

Why you’ll suck at it: “You have to have an affinity for the instrument or for music. If you don’t have an affinity, no amount of practice is going to make it work. I started studying at 6 years old, and I’m not sure if I ever sucked, but I found it very boring and tedious. One of the things in my favor is that I did have a good ear. I could sit at the piano and find little melodies that I heard on the radio, so that was the thing that kept me going and then gradually I grew to love it. Music is never-ending for me. I’m 73 years old and still learning. I listen to the younger guys and there are technical things I want to do, harmonic things, new composing concepts. I taught at Juilliard, and I’d ask students, ‘Show me that, how do you do that?’ ” —Kenny Barron, jazz pianist

Where to learn it: Piano for Absolute and Utter Beginners, $600 for 17 sessions at Bloomingdale School of Music (323 W. 108th St.).

Or YouTube it: The “Learn to Play Piano Instantly” series, to learn a shortcut number system that speeds up the process.

8. Improv

Why you’ll suck at it: “At first you play a lot of improv games that are like icebreakers at camp, but you’re an adult in a room of strangers so you feel like an asshole. It’s embarrassing. Eventually it becomes a safe space. You go into improv thinking you’ll be good at it because you’re funny, and then you quickly realize you’re not. In theory the concept of making something up on the spot seems easy, but in practice it’s complex and there are rules that you have to follow that actually make things funnier. A lot of people come in being like, What’s the craziest thing I can do? But that falls apart because there’s actually nothing funny about someone just being crazy. It’s actually following the most basic premises that makes the funniest result, but it’s hard to believe that in the beginning. Only once you see rules working again and again do you really believe them.” —Jonny Gottlieb, writer

Where to learn it: Improv 101: Improv Basics, $475 for eight sessions at Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center (520 Eighth Ave.).

Or YouTube it: “The Business: Improv & Sketch Comedy,” a panel discussion on training techniques and improv styles.

9. Hip-Hop Dancing

Why you’ll suck at it: “Learning how to twerk is not something that comes very naturally to me, even though I’ve taken ballroom-dance classes for about ten years and hip-hop for a year. Isolating certain parts of your body like your rib cage can be really hard. In my mind I think I look good. It’s only later when I look at a recording I’m like, Oh, I still need to work on that.” —Eugene Brodach, finance and strategy senior associate at Zocdoc

Where to learn it: Absolute Beginner Hip-hop, $20 per class at Ailey Extension (405 W. 55th St.).

Or YouTube it: In “How to Twerk; Club Dance Moves,” choreographer Tweety breaks it down in just a few simple steps.

10. Apartment gardening

Why you’ll suck at it: “The hardest part is learning about all the different plants. There are thousands of indoor plants, and it’s not just the names but the care, how much light each needs, how often you water it. The hardest ones for me used to be aloe plants. I couldn’t keep those alive. Now I can’t stop buying plants. There are moments when I’m like, I totally got this, and then I’m looking for a low-light plant that can sit in a corner and I’m like, Oh, I actually don’t know about this. There’s still so much to study.” —Kesslyr Dean, artist

Where to learn it: Apartment Gardener’s Saturday: Creating an Indoor Garden, $39 at New York Botanical Garden (20 W. 44th St.).

Or YouTube it: “Apartment Living: Ten Tips for Indoor Plants.”

11. Knitting

Why you’ll suck at it: “Even though I’ve been crocheting since I was 10, my brain just couldn’t handle knitting. Something about using two needles instead of one has been so hard to manage. For each new thing I make, I have to start from sucking again. So far I’ve only made a cowl, but my next goal is to do a hat. Sleeves are hard because you have to attach them, and with a fitted garment you need to deal with measurements. I keep going anyway for the sense of accomplishment. Also, there have been quite a few studies that needlecraft actually lowers blood pressure and depres­sion and has physiological benefits. I’m hoping that happens too.” —Hope Stevens, human-resources manager

Where to learn it: Knitting 1, $130 for three sessions at Lion Brand Yarn Studio (34 W. 15th St.).

Or YouTube it: “How to Knit: A Complete Introduction for Beginners,” a 20-minute step-by-step tutorial on how to hold the needles and start your first project.

Bumbling Is Good for the Brain

By Jihan Thompson

Photo: Joe McKendry

Neuronal connections are created in the brain when you attempt something new. Plenty of research indicates this, including a 2010 study in The Journal of Neuroscience that found that even after just two sessions of practicing a new task, the brain creates more gray matter. A 2015-published study by an MIT team that examined neuromuscular junctions in fruit flies suggested that, effectively, the simple act of forcing yourself to get your head around something novel can produce new connections between neurons or strengthen existing ones. That goes for trying stuff you’re bad at, too. A 2014 study in the journal PloS One revealed that practicing art (in this case, a ten-week drawing and painting workshop for older adults) also enhances connections between different brain regions, possibly improving cognitive function. What didn’t matter was how good the subjects’ watercolor paintings turned out — the simple act of creating is what researchers believe leads to improved brain function.

Those scientific benefits seem to be further enhanced when one tries to remain optimistic while sucking at stuff. In one study in 2006, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck monitored the brain waves of subjects as they completed a string of tasks on a computer. Those who maintained a growth mind-set after making mistakes (“I will figure this out”) were likelier to do better on their second try than those who believed their behavior was fixed (“I’ll never be any good at this”). A team of researchers at Michigan State built upon Dweck’s findings through brain monitoring: They discovered that when people displayed a growth mind-set, they actually displayed superior brain functionality than those with a what’s-the-use attitude.

Eggs: The Food Everyone’s Ashamed To Mess Up

Photo: Joe McKendry

From Rachel Khong, an author of All About Eggs: Everything We Know About the World’s Most Important Food (April 2017)

Scrambled
Whisk two eggs, salt, and pepper together; melt a tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat in a nonstick skillet; add the eggs, stir immediately and diligently (with a silicone spatula), and remove from heat after a minute, when still runny-looking (it will cook in the pan).

Fried
Heat a nonstick skillet over a medium-low flame with a teaspoon of butter, oil, or lard; crack the egg into it and cook until the egg white is set (about one or two minutes) for a sunny-side-up egg, or flip over for 15 seconds for over-easy; wait another 30 seconds for over-medium, and another 30 seconds for over-hard.

Soft-boiled
Set a timer for 4 1/2 minutes, bring a large saucepan of water to a boil, add the eggs, start the timer, gently stir them for one minute (to center the yolk inside the white), then stop stirring and reduce the heat to simmer at a light bubble for 3 1/2 minutes more, put each egg in a cup, cut tops off, and eat.

How to Fail at Your Job and Not Get Fired

As told to Jason Feifer

Work Hard at the Last Possible Second
“It’s like ending the concert with a great encore; as long as you do that, people don’t remember anything else. I’ve literally gone off the map for two weeks to party, then come back and helped save the company from some major problem. If you just change the camera angle a little, I’m the biggest fucking asset of the company.” —Employee at a prominent tech start-up

Find Unusual Leverage
“I should have been fired multiple times. Under my watch, we’ve had huge security lapses; a random guy once walked out of here with a box of hard drives. But my superiors are a bunch of stoners, and I’ve become their supplier. The better they treat me, the better quality and price of weed I get them.” —Security guard at a data center

Keep Asking for Second Chances
“I spend hours knocking on doors, trying to sell solar panels. I’ve sold nothing, and I’ve been at it five months. My manager keeps giving me second chances, saying he wants me to succeed. We do practice pitches once a week. And as long as we’re doing that, I’m safe.” —Door-to-door salesperson

Go From Sucking to 60

The places and people that help you learn how to be less bad at a hobby, quickly. By Kayleen Schaefer and Lauren Schwartzberg

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Piano
When Tom Cruise had just five weeks to learn the piano and harpsichord for Interview With a Vampire, having never played either instrument, he called Margie Balter. So did Holly Hunter, who then went on to win an Oscar for The Piano. Balter has perfected a crash course and needs only two weeks and a dedicated learner to teach the basics. Price upon request; margiebalter.com.

Singing
Liz Caplan has a trick for learning how to sing really fast: Do it while actively participating in another activity. So when an actor like Amanda Seyfried comes to her with a new song she needs to perfect for a part she’s auditioning for in just three weeks, Caplan will have her sing while jumping on the trampoline or running on the treadmill. “That way they can quickly digest it, metabolize it, and spit it out without thinking too much,” she says. Price upon request; lizcaplan.com.

Learning (or Losing) an Accent
Anytime a new actor joins the Kinky Boots cast and needs to learn a British accent quick, he turns to Amy Jo Jackson. She once taught an actor four accents for an audition in just one hour. If you need more time, she’ll leave you with a recording to practice at home. $90 an hour; amyjojackson.com.

Camping
If you’re not ready to rough it in the wilderness, test out the experience by camping with strangers on a rooftop at an event called Bivouac. Everyone must bring food to share at the communal dinner; you have the choice to sleep solo or with up to three people in a tent. Free; bivouacnyc.com.

Kissing
At the “makeout parties” hosted by House of Scorpio, you’ll play old-school kissing games, such as Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven, with both sexes. In this case it’s not so much about the instruction as the practice. $10 with RSVP; houseofscorpio.com.

*This article appears in the November 14, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.