On The Merits of Sucking


Hi, my name is Tereza and I suck at things. In fact, it could almost be said that I excel at sucking at things. My suckiness is interdisciplinary and not limited to a particular field or area. It ranges in severity from dire (volleyball, figure drawing, dealing with bureaucracy) to mildly inconvenient and largely inconsequential (making toast, remembering where I put my keys or bicycle). Sometimes this provides comic relief and I have fun laughing at my failures, large and small, but other times it’s frustrating and I wonder if I’m the only one who can’t seem to remember my postal code. Either way, every day I manage to find new things to be bad at in novel and exciting ways.

Moreover, there are very few, if any, things that I am amazingly good at. The three years I’ve spent studying theoretical math have confirmed that I am not abjectly terrible at it (I haven’t failed out yet), but I have classmates for whom figures in n-space make beautiful sense, for whom twenty-line proofs flow with natural grace, who find the entire thing an intricate mosaic of poetic logic. Though I too once cried a little when my three-page proof crystallized elegantly into place, when it comes down to it I am not one of them. I find math beautiful, but the assignments are difficult and for the most part, I grind gears and google things and muddle along, occasionally getting remarks like “NO!” from my TA in red pen. I ‘m a volunteer bike mechanic, and last week when helping someone fix a bottom bracket, I more or less told them to get one of the men to help because I had no idea. I’ve climbed for years and I’m still unlikely to wow anyone with my graceful movements or sinewy biceps. I like to write and take photographs, but so does every other twentysomething sitting at this cafe with a laptop, and many of them have been doing it longer than me and can turn a phrase or find an angle far better than I ever will. I could find plenty of similar examples, but suffice it to say that in short, my skills are on the whole unremarkable.

An adolescence spent in American public school, where it seemed that every child was a hero and small achievements were rewarded with conspicuous applause, did not encourage statements like, “I suck at this.” Instead, Technicolor posters saying things like “If you can dream it, you can do it!” and “You’re a star!” adorned the walls of my classrooms until the age of seventeen. During my entire time in America, I was always pushed to “Be my very best” and “Achieve Great Things!” and occasionally heard things like “Second place is just first loser!” In third grade, I told my neighbor who was on the community swim team with me that she probably wasn’t going to the Olympics, and she said I was rude and mean and that she could be anything she wanted. A whole lot of us received “Awards for Excellence” that were rather vague and possibly, depending on your definition of excellence, unfounded. Telling someone they were bad at something was the utmost taboo–you could maim their self-esteem! Instead of saying something so abhorrent, standards were lowered and small things were celebrated. You graduated public high school? Amazing! You were accepted into some sort of institution of higher learning? Even better!

Allow me to rebel churlishly against all this positivity and say that no, in fact, I am not “excellent.” I may not even be good. I certainly have friends who objectively are–neurological savants, professional kayakers, charismatic musicians–but perhaps I myself am not. And, furthermore, that it doesn’t matter. If I limited my activities to things I am very good at, I would spend my time drinking tea and having feelings, and the enjoyment potential of both of those is limited. Meanwhile, doing things the way I’ve always done them–somewhat badly–provides at the very least an interesting diversion and a continuous gentle reminder not to have too much of an ego about it all. It’s also usually really fun. After considerable deliberation, I’ve come to the groundbreaking, earth-shattering, shocking conclusion that the world will keep spinning whether or not I have an innate understanding of advanced calculus.

As is usually the case with my earth-shattering revelations, they have been made before. In the Czech Republic, there is a saying: “Don’t worry, you’ll never be the best.” Russians have it too, but all my American friends either laughed at it or were confused by it when I told them. It’s worded in an odd way, but it’s just a reminder to bear in mind what we’ve always known. The world is wide and almost everyone is competent enough to do something they deem worthwhile in it, and furthermore, we have absolute freedom in what we choose to deem worthwhile. This is its own can of worms, and not one that as a hapless twenty-year-old I’m prepared to tackle at this very moment, but that’s beside the point. The American go-getter attitude has an ugly, egocentric side, and one of the positives of sucking at things is that you get to step away from it, not define yourself by your successes. You don’t need a gold star, and perhaps more fundamentally, gold stars are meaningless.

Let’s all go suck at something. The real problem comes when it becomes hard to find the motivation or courage to keep doing so. If anyone has an answer to that one, feel free to let me know.

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image – Tinou Bao