December 28, 2023

The other day, a friend asked what my son was into these days. Without thinking, I replied, “Well, yesterday I heard him say his favorite sports are soccer and ice skating, even though he just started skating lessons and isn’t even good at it yet.” I started to hear myself before the words even finished leaving my mouth, and I clamped my mouth in surprise immediately after, wide-eyed and embarrassed. Did I really just say that?

A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about what I had said. I mean, what did I expect after two ice skating lessons? But I have had a shift in mindset since then–one that I am still growing into. The questions I need to ask myself are: So what? So what if he was not good at it? So what if he took twenty lessons and still made little progress? If he enjoyed it, and if he said it was one of his favorites, who am I to rain on that happiness?

Ok, I’m his mom. And I do get to observe and try to help him find his strengths and develop them. But I also need to learn to see his passions and interests and embrace them–even if he doesn’t show the promise or potential to be one of the best in the field.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time on fields, courts, and gyms. My favorite sport was whatever I was good at, and I had a lot of favorites (or too much self-confidence hah). My least favorite activities were the ones where I wasn’t one of the best, so naturally I quit violin when it was clear I wasn’t going to catch up to my big brother and stayed out of soccer when I realized in middle school that other kids already had years of experience going into it. It never occurred to me that you could be just okay at something and enjoy it immensely. How could it be enjoyable if other people were beating you?

I lived with that competitive mindset for most of my life, gravitating toward activities where I felt like I had talent, and avoiding activities that I didn’t show immediate promise for. The first time I remember thinking it should be any different was when I read Siblings Without Rivalry, and one of the authors shared how she had loved playing the piano as a child, but was encouraged to find a different hobby when her sister showed more promise than her. Her parents discontinued her lessons, and she spent the rest of her life sad that she never learned how to play better.

Wow, that’s sad. What was it like to spend your life wishing you had a skill that your parents didn’t invest in simply because someone else was better? But I was also confused. If you weren’t good, why would you want to keep playing? If your sister was so much better than you (and in the story, she really was), wouldn’t you want to find something else to be good at? I didn’t realize it yet, but a small wondering formed at the back of my mind: Could you be very ok at something and keep learning it just because you enjoyed it?

I always felt bad for the author, and the other stories of people who never got to continue in various areas of interest simply because they had a sibling that outshone them in that area. But I also empathized greatly with the parents. They were simply trying to steer their child in a direction where they could find their strengths and really lean into something they could excel at. This made a lot of sense to me. Certainly people would be happier in the long run if they did things they were good at, right?

It wasn’t until a few years later that I really reexamined this mindset, when I came across this story by Kurt Vonnegut:

“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of ‘getting to know you’ questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.

“And he went wow. That’s amazing! And I said, ‘Oh no, but I’m not any good at any of them.’

“And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: ‘I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.’

“And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could ‘win’ at them.”

Wait. What??

I paused my scrolling and went back to reread it.

I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.

The words made sense, and yet I could sense something momentous was shifting in my brain.

I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them.

I could feel my mind crunching that thought and chewing and rolling it around, examining the tastes and textures of it and trying to decide whether or not it was a safe thought to swallow. And on the surface, it seemed like a perfectly harmless thought. Wonderful experiences… learning teachings… makes you interesting. Sure, sure. That’s fine. No matter how well you do them. *Crunch crunch* Could this be true?

Was a thing worth investing time and energy in, even if you weren’t going to be great at it? Or good at it? Or even OK at it? Could you be terrible at it and it still be worth spending time on?! *Chew chew* Could you be the worst player on the team and stick around simply because you enjoyed the sport?! Could this really be safe and even a wonderful and delicious and freeing thought?

I thought about the child version of the author who never got to learn piano, and what a loss she endured for the rest of her life without having the ability to play. I imagined what it would be like if I never got to learn piano, and what a tremendous hole there would be in my life without it.

It’s a big one.

What if my older brother had stuck with piano instead of switching to the violin, and I had been redirected to something else? I tried to imagine how different my life would have been without this music that I have always known, loved, and had the ability to enjoy and create.

All because someone else was better.

Which is a silly thought, because of course someone else will be better. There is always someone else better. But it’s true: there’s no reason I shouldn’t enjoy an activity just because someone else was good at it. And of course, the same is true for my children. So when I take my kids to their weekly ice skating lesson and my little guy scrapes his way across the rink with a big smile and his arms making “I LOVE YOU!!” symbols (it’s just as cute as it seems!), I return the gesture and point my thumbs at my chest, make a heart with my hands, and point it right back at him. I LOVE YOU, TOO!! And I am proud of him for scooting across the ice, for being content with simply improving on his ice skating skills, for sticking with it after falling, and even for loving me and knowing he is loved while he does it all. It is a beautiful thing.


Author’s Note: I’ve been locked out of this blog account for a while, and finally got around to asking Ben to help me get back in. Hello, 2024! I see you approaching in just a few days!! But I had a blog post writing itself in my brain that I wanted to get out here, so Ben got me back in here a few minutes ago and I found this post that I wrote this past March! And hey, I think this is an idea worth sharing! So, today, nearly a year later, I’m publishing it. I’m very sensitive these days about writing something that my kids would not want me to put out in the world… either for now, or for later. But right now, this seems pretty safe, so here goes!

8 responses to “Enjoying is Enough”

  1. Drliusd says:

    Welcome back!! Woke up early to find your email and Kurt V’s quotes blew my mind. I experience just this as a parent and also want to protect my youngest from disappointment and comparison by having him choose different activities from his brother (of course, some of this happens naturally).

    Wow. Need to think more about this but def below my mind and exactly what I needed this morning. Thank you for writing!

    • joellen says:

      Hi hi!!! Thank you for the welcome back, it means a lot to me! 🙂 And thank you for sharing your thoughts. I totally know where you’re coming from and often find myself deliberating about those same things!

  2. Diana says:

    I loved this! You are a very wise mom! Thank you for sharing!

    • joellen says:

      Aw thank you for reading!!! To be honest, the last couple years of parenting have been so humbling and I am increasingly finding myself desperate for wisdom I don’t have. That probably explains my radio silence more than anything. But, when I find an idea that sticks, I do love to share so maybe someone else might benefit too!

  3. Alice L says:

    What a lovely surprise to see your blog email drop into my inbox as our families grow up.

    On the same day this arrived I read an article with a different slant –
    building on developed strengths not remediated weaknesses.

    Plenty to think about.
    Thank you.

    • joellen says:

      Wait, I LOVE the idea that there is someone else out there who had babies and then toddlers and now bigger kids at the same time I did, going through this parenting journey together! Would love to read the article you came across, if you happen to see this and can find the link again!

  4. Brenda says:

    I have missed your sharing and the wisdom that accompanied them. Thankful you are back blogging (with Ben’s help). Keep writing and sharing!

    • joellen says:

      Aw thank you <3 Can you please keep praying for wisdom for me and Ben? I feel more desperate for it now than ever! Thank you!!! <3