The last place I should have been was at the top of a mountain. The heavy clouds meant visibility was limited to 100ft and the (apparently) beautiful views of the Lake District were covered by thick, drizzly fog. We’d already eaten all our Snickers and trail mix, the walking socks I had to borrow from my sister were too small and my legs were aching not only from the 902m ascent, but also my chronic shin splints. It was 5pm and it would take another three hours to walk back down, so we spent a pitiful total of three minutes at the summit.
I’m bad at climbing mountains. I knew that before I set off. I knew it when I was on my seventh pit stop, drinking the water I would need more desperately higher up. I knew it every time I stepped aside to let another walker pass me, and again when they came down. “I’m bad at this,” I shouted to my dad, who is very good at climbing mountains. “I know,” he replied and we carried on walking.
There are lots of other things I’m bad at. Last weekend, I dug out the keyboard my parents bought me for my 11th birthday and set to composing a masterpiece. I can’t stretch my thumb and finger between C and F, and despite having a decent sense of rhythm, my left and right hands can’t seem to communicate. I have the same problem when I pick up a guitar – another hopeful birthday gift. There’s a sketchbook and watercolour set sat on my bedside table, for when my tired eyes can’t handle Netflix or a book. Let’s just say it’ll be at least 100 years before my genius is recognised.
“Practice makes perfect” goes the age-old saying and research has shown that it takes around 21 days of consecutive repetition to form a habit. This is obviously something else I’m fundamentally bad at. Perhaps I am, but it’s a symptom of my millennial generation – why choose one hobby when I could have four? And if I spend an hour playing the same three piano chords on a Tuesday night, why would I want to do the same on a Wednesday?
When I’m struggling to play the piano, I’m only struggling to play the piano. The difficult day I’ve just had doesn’t exist any more
But there’s a more holistic reason I carry on with the things I’m bad at. When I’m struggling to play the piano, I’m only struggling to play the piano. The difficult day I’ve just had doesn’t exist any more, neither do the messages on my phone or the ironing – there are only black notes, white notes and, when I’m in charge, bum notes. I do want to be good at the piano, I’d love to be the friend who is “a really good painter”, but accepting that I never will be gives me freedom to let loose for that hour, a liberty we’re so rarely given – the permission to explore.
K Anders Ericsson, a leading psychologist in human performance, thinks there’s not much to be gained from deliberate and sustained practice. “Engagement in deliberate practice is not inherently motivating,” he wrote in a paper on becoming an “expert”. Ericsson’s hypothesis predicts that children who are encouraged to learn something in a fun way, without the pressure of becoming a genius, are more likely to want to continue in their practice. I can relate to these imagined children. If I had to sit down every night and recite Chopsticks, I’d be much less likely to sit at my piano the next week and (attempt to) play Bennie And The Jets.
According to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, having a hobby can make us better performers at work. It was found that creative activities outside of work helped participants to recover from workplace stress. Imagine how much recovery you could get through when the pressure is taken off everything – even the fun.
The stress does come back eventually, sometimes sooner than you think. The day after climbing the first mountain, we set off again up another, higher one. When we reached the first tarn, at 473m high, we took the pressure off and made our way back. To the pub. That’s something I’m good at.