Any week you don’t see this column on your feed, it is mostly because I haven’t submitted it. I tell myself that I am too busy to write it, or I don’t know what to write about. But the truth is that when I hold back from submitting a piece to my editors, it is mostly because I was too paralysed by the fear of it sucking that I simply did not write it. I’m glad that the editors are patient with me, and that, you, dear reader, read the columns when they come out and message me your thoughts about them.
I am no expert, but I suspect that this is a common occurrence for most. Anybody who cares about their work feels a degree of pressure about putting out quality stuff. I also suspect that this is especially true for people whose work is so public-facing. There’s an old saying: “Doctors bury their mistakes; journalists put theirs on the front page”. This saying dates all the way back to the 19th century, and has become part of journalism lore, quoted extensively in books and other publications for as long as people have actively worked in the media industry. Imagine how much more true it is today given we’re living in the internet age where mistakes made in public are much more likely to go viral than be met with patience, grace or good will.
Fortunately, life is bigger than work. But if you let it, life, too, will keep humbling you. That’s not a bad thing. It’s how we learn, I suppose. A full life lived with openness and curiosity is a series of failures; they are guaranteed to trip you up and also reward you with immense joy. Sometimes at the same time.
I recently started boxing as a way to de-stress and get back some mobility into my long suffering muscles and joints. I knew that boxing, even for beginners, would be intense (nothing about the way Conjestina Achieng’ throws blows on TV looks easy). But what I wasn’t prepared for was how much coordination it demands. It’s like dancing. The goal is to block or avoid blows as much as it is to hit your opponent. I have never been the most coordinated of people. I regularly trip over my own feet and I have learnt to avoid situations where I might be forced to dance.
So imagine my displeasure with my instructor’s constant refrains of “Duck! Double duck! Slip! Faster or I will hit you!”
“I keep messing up the technique,” I said in frustration after failing to dodge anything, sweat dripping down my forehead and into my eyes, causing them to sting. I felt embarrassed regardless of the fact that there was no audience. It was just us in the studio, and I had paid him to teach me. I wanted to give up so badly.
“It is only your first week,” my instructor said.
Of course it was hard.
I was only two days in, too early in the game for me to land a jab with any precision, let alone successfully block any attacks. Giving up this early would mean I didn’t really have to suffer the indignity of failure because I wouldn’t have given boxing any real chance. I could then tick it off my list as one more thing that’s “just not for me”. Like swimming. Or learning French. Or what sometimes I want to do with writing.
Look, I am not saying don’t give up on things. I am just saying, don’t quit just because they challenge you. Don’t quit before you really try. Allow yourself to be bad at things, mediocre even, because how else will you expand your world beyond what you already know? How else will you cultivate new avenues of joy and fulfilment?
Learning something new requires us to be willing to be wrong or look foolish, which can feel physically painful. It goes against our survival instinct, which is to present ourselves as competitive adults with a working knowledge of the world.
A while ago, I read a piece in the Guardian about the joys of being a beginner, which posited that children have an easier time than adults when learning new things because they “have beginners’ minds, open to wider possibilities. They see the world with fresher eyes, are less burdened with preconception and past experience, and are less guided by what they know to be true.”
Before the world beats it out of them, children instinctively know to just do, then think about it later. That’s how they learn. That’s how we all learn, if only we’d get out of our own way.
I’m still bad at boxing but I am still showing up for my classes four times a week, and still getting a beating, both literally and figuratively. I will quit when it’s no longer fun, and only after I feel I have genuinely given it my best shot.