Why You Should Do Things You're Bad At

Photo: Sam Wolff

As a kid, I wasn’t afraid of the dark, heights, or even, for the most part, monsters. Nope, what really knocked me awake in a cold sweat at night was the thought of my math homework, which, despite the consequences, I avoided doing at all costs. While I’d happily labor away at a reading assignment or spend hours writing and illustrating essays and stories, by third grade, I’d closed the book on all things numbers.

What I later realized was that it wasn’t so much that I was entirely hopeless at arithmetic, geometry, or even algebra, but that while working with words felt natural, working with numbers was like walking on my hands — it would not come easily.

I think everyone has things they avoid because they don’t feel comfortable doing them. Competence is comfortable. And I’ll be the first to admit it — doing things you aren’t good at can really suck. Fortunately, there are some really good reasons to dig in anyway. (See also: How to Improve Your Memory)

It’ll Make You Smarter

Doing things we’re good at makes us feel smart, but the cruel reality is that it actually makes us dumber. Crossword puzzles and Sudoku games are great, but once your brain has made those pathways, doing them over and over is just running over the same ground. Meanwhile, everything else gets thorny and overgrown.

There’s quite a bit of research that shows that new sensory experiences can cause massive rewiring in the brain, even as we age (which, for all the “old dogs” out there, means there’s still hope). A recent study also found that all "this rewiring involves fibers that supply the primary input to the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for sensory perception, motor control, and cognition." In other words, by traveling to new places, trying new sports, and learning new skills — perhaps especially the ones that are least familiar to us — we’re actually pulling back the overgrowth that can age our brains. When it comes to finding the fountain of youth, this might be as good as it gets.

Life Will Seem Longer

Remember back in grade school when the school year seemed to be decades long? As we get older, a year can often fly by so quickly we hardly even notice it. That’s because we actually don’t have to; when everything is so familiar, there’s no reason for our brains to take notice. According to research by neuroscientist David Eagleman, the more familiar we become with the world, the less information our brains record. In other words, trying new things can make our lives feel longer and fuller.

No, you probably can’t go back to the days when you were fascinated by a stick or a rock at the park, but you can create a similar effect by introducing new things to your life. And if they’re new, you can bet you probably won’t be a pro at them.

Bye Bye Ego

I think if there’s anything that holds us back from doing things we’re bad at, it’s ego (at least it is for me). I’m competitive, and I like to feel like I can succeed, or at least hold my own. What I don’t like to feel is totally out of my element. But when I do something that doesn’t come easily to me, it does two things: it frustrates me, and it forces me to learn some new things — and some new things about myself.

I took up yoga, for example, because I lack flexibility. And balance. And coordination...and any sense of grace whatsoever. That made spending an hour and a half in a class full of beautifully bendy people really hard sometimes. I got frustrated. I got angry. I tried too hard and hurt myself. Sometimes, I gave up even trying at all. What I (finally) discovered was that before I could get better at yoga, I had to learn to be OK with not being very good at it. The same has proved to be true with other things that aren’t strengths for me, like math (we’ve made peace) and making cookies.

If yoga was an Olympic sport, I wouldn’t make the cut. I don’t think any amount of practice can morph my brain into that of a math whiz. And my cookies, well, Martha Stewart would not approve. But I’m not ready to give up on them yet. At least not until I get to be good at them.

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Guest's picture

Thanks for your article.

I'm not a math person. Balancing a checkbook or doing taxes is very, very painful. It always seems to come out wrong. Once I married, Sweetie took over our taxes and checkbook. (YES!) However, I do most of the household shopping, so the budget books naturally falls to me. Which involves loads of math. One fateful, frantic day the calculator disappeared.... It's been a couple months. Math doesn't hurt quite as much anymore.

Maybe Yoga is next....

Tara Struyk's picture

Thanks for the comment. I found math got easier when I could use it for something more concrete than passing a test ... but I'm still glad there's no call for calculus in my daily life!