Young Star

‘Winning’ isn’t always the endgame

QUIET COMPANY - Carina Santos - The Philippine Star

Society places a big premium on being good at stuff. Prodigies, geniuses, athletes and rock stars are celebrated everywhere, casting a shadow over perceived “mediocrity.” Constant comparison sometimes drives a lot of people to actually outdo themselves, with the hopes of being on par with their idols and their tales of success. Victory — or in our unfortunate vernacular, “winning” — seems to have become the endgame of all things, the sole purpose for most of the things humans end up doing. The fear of failure, of being bad at something, seems to be as motivating as the desire to succeed.

There are people who dedicate their whole lives to doing one thing, exerting all their effort to being the very best at it. Which is great, if that’s what you want to do with your life. When you find your life’s passion, pouring your heart and soul into it only makes sense, doesn’t it?

I, for one, can’t fathom how it’s possible to funnel all your energy into one thing, when there are so many things I enjoy doing. For the longest time, “Jack of all trades, master of none” was a worrying adage for me, especially with the increasing public disdain for “slashers,” or people who try to do too much. “But what are you?” people ask, as though an answer that satisfies these questions actually existed. “What do you do?”

Imagine my state when I encountered Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog and fox dilemma by way of a Jack Gilbert poem called “Flat Hedgehogs.” Referencing an ancient Greek aphorism — “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” — I wondered which was the better predicament. Was it better to be a fox or a hedgehog?

There’s no reason for people to be reduced to the things they’re good at, especially if they don’t want to be defined solely by them. Labels and occupations sometimes feel like suffocation, boxes inside which we put ourselves. “I’m an island of such great complexity,” Stephen Malkmus sings. You don’t have to be defined only by the things you’re very good at, and you don’t have to only keep doing things you’re good at. Finally, you don’t have to keep doing something you’re good at, if you don’t want to.

What if your passion is something you’re terrible at? What if you can’t pick one? I tried to adopt Ryan Adam’s advice. “Focus on one thing. Make that one thing really good,” he said. I neglected to consider that perhaps he might have meant “focus on one thing at a time.

There’s merit in doing stuff you like without aiming, deliberately, to be perfect at it. You can do things without needing to be the absolute best at it. Early failures may cause you to give up on something you actually might end up really love doing, just because you don’t think you’re quite good enough at it to keep at it.

In 2010, I bought myself a ukulele, but I only ever got the hang of it — chords, transitions, strumming patterns — a month ago when I sat myself down long enough to learn a song. And it turns out that I love playing the uke. Am I good at it? Hell, no. The thing is you’re allowed to be bad at things you like doing. “I’m bad at it” becomes a seemingly legitimate reason for not doing things — even the things that you actually enjoy doing, which is a shame.

Lately, I feel like it’s been harder for people to do stuff for the sole purpose of enjoyment, because anything that isn’t viewed as “productive” or something you’re particularly good at is automatically categorized as a waste of time. What, then, are you good for in the world, if not for what you spend your time doing?

Being a “Jack of all trades” isn’t so bad, especially when you find out that the adage that spooked you so much actually goes on for another line:

  Jack of all trades, master of none,

  certainly better than master of one.

I don’t know if I necessarily agree with it, but it’s still a good reminder that there is no “right” way to be. I think I want to be a fox, and I need to keep telling myself that it’s okay that I probably won’t ever know that One Big Thing. It’s okay if you’ve found yours, too.

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