When was the last time you tried something new? Something that won’t make you more productive, make you more money, or check anything off your to-do list? Something you’re really, really bad at, but that brought you joy?
The title of Karen Rinaldi’s book resonates with me, someone who has made conscious efforts to cultivate being a beginner on a regular basis. I was that kid Carol Dweck warns of when she talks about children who are praised for accomplishment who become fearful of taking risks. Early in adulthood I decided it was a good idea to try my hand at things that interested me, especially when they seemed like things that I might suck hard at. I have been a terrible photographer and a terrible runner/triathlete. I took up knitting and surprised myself when I didn’t suck. I took up sewing and absolutely did. At present, I’m a terrible violin player. There’s something very freeing about this.
Rinaldi knows what I’m talking about and she wants to share the gospel of sucking with you. In her 40s, she opted to counter to her lifelong anxieties about the ocean by learning to surf. She was terrible at it. Like, legit terrible. After her initial lessons, it took her five years to catch a wave on her own.
Imagine that: five years’s worth of mornings and afternoons of pulling out a board, paddling out in the water, sitting on a board, and not once managing to pop up and ride a wave. That’s not even optimism; that’s definition of insanity kind of stuff.
But there’s a satisfaction in leaning into the failure. And, I think Rinaldi would agree, we have to be okay with naming it as failure. There are things we will attempt to do that we will never be good at by any objective means. This doesn’t mean those activities are not worthwhile. They still can be.
Life is not for figuring out. It’s for living. It’s for succeeding and sucking. And while we are inclined to seek comfort, we are sure to meet with discomfort. Sucking at something embraces that discomfort and turns it into something beautiful.
Rinaldi makes a passionate argument in favor of sucking, layering personal anecdotes with information culled from philosophy, literature, and science. The book is a longer form of a New York Times article published two years ago.
While I’m glad Rinaldi filled out her idea a bit more, the book drags a little under the weight of the more philosophical portions. The book almost feels like a surfer sitting in the water, waiting for the right moment and missing wave after wave of opportunities to move forward. And this is why I’ve given it a lower rating. By about half way through the book, I was growing frustrated with the pace. It moves too slow and there were several points where I lost the thread of the discussion.
This is a lovely, if long, memoir that I would absolutely recommend to anyone on the fence about pursuing a hobby that sounds intriguing.
I will never be Regina Carter, Hilary Hahn, or Sarah Watkins on my violin. I might one day aspire to match Jack Benny’s comedy routine, but right now, I can absolutely say that Tuesday–the day I haul my instrument on my commute for my lesson at lunch–is my favorite day of the week. And that alone has made a huge difference in my mental health.
I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book via NetGalley in order to facilitate this review.