The worst thing you could have told me when I was younger was that I was not special. To me, being special meant being so good at something that it defines you, like Mozart and his music, Feynman and physics or, for a more modern example, the way chess was tied to Beth Harmon.
So, for most of my (admittedly short) life, I was dead set on being special in some way. I almost imagined it like this: If I reached a certain unknown threshold, I would have the words, “SPECIAL CHILD”, tattooed on my face for all to see. They would be in all caps because my specialness would be glaringly obvious. And everyone, when they saw me, would say, “Ah, look at that special child”.
The only problem was figuring out how I could get there, so that’s where my hobbies came in. The great thing about hobbies is if you genuinely enjoy the activity and practice often, chances are you will most likely become good at it. And what more does anyone want than to be good at something? I developed a feeling of urgency to be supremely gifted in my hobbies compounded by the fact that universities totally dig that sort of stuff. If you add a casual line stating you performed a Liszt’s Un Sospiro at Carnegie Hall, I don’t think there would be a single admissions officer who wouldn’t be impressed and want you at their university.
“You don’t have to spend the rest of your life ruminating on your lack of, “specialness”. It’s much more fulfilling to try your hand at new things”.
When I was younger, I joined various activities ranging from twirling in a tutu to swimming laps to learning maths shortcuts in KUMON to playing off-key on the flute. I enjoyed all the after-school classes but felt that I was being dragged to them for the most part and found I was never inherently ‘good’ at any single one of them.
Let’s take the flute as an example. I had huge dreams of becoming a prodigy. I imagined myself performing at concerts and, by the end, no one would be wearing socks because, obviously, I had knocked their socks off. My daydreams were brought to a screeching halt in class. Week after week, my teacher would conceal his disappointment in my lack of progress by saying something encouraging or gently guiding me towards the proper technique.
I had always thought it was my fault. I had dreams of reaching the mountain top but didn’t want to experience the climb itself. Until I was about fourteen, I wanted to be inherently talented without understanding that talent usually accompanies hours of practice. When I came to this realisation, I started practising more and kept beating myself up for not taking it seriously sooner because now, I would never be a prodigy. I would never be able to be the special person that I wanted people to see me as without accepting that it took time to get there.
“It’s not that we shouldn’t try our best at it but more that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not being amazing at it”.
A Rubik’s cube sits on my desk (and comes in handy when lectures become too boring). I know how to solve it, but it takes me at least five minutes, not quite at record-speeds of less than ten seconds. I’m not great at maths but it’s pretty clear that if I wanted to be the best, it would take an awful amount of time.
My first instinct on marking the discrepancy between my skills and the world records that stood between my specialness was frustration, leaving me with the desire to become the best at it. I imagined planning out the next few months where I would sit, huddled in my room, intensely focused on my Rubik’s cube. I didn’t find time to become the fastest Rubik’s cuber, but as a got older, I realized that there were more meaningful things to spend my time on.
When you’re younger, there tends to be a focus on becoming the best flautist or athlete or chess player. Then you can stick it onto your resume to brandish to the rest of the world. A hobby becomes something you measure your self-worth by. But hobbies aren’t meant for that purpose. They were never intended to cause undue stress. It’s okay to absolutely, completely suck at a hobby. It’s not that we shouldn’t try our best at it but more that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not being amazing at it.
You don’t have to spend the rest of your life ruminating on your lack of, “specialness”. It’s much more fulfilling to try your hand at new things. I think the best we can manage is to be an amalgamation of quirks and interests which, perhaps, individually don’t amount to anything impressive but together, offer a unique and, dare I say it, “special”, package that is uniquely you. So, I will continue to play off-key on my flute and drive my family insane; my drawings of stick figures will populate the pages of my notebooks and I will continue to lag behind at swim practice. I may not be great at any of my hobbies but put together, they amount to more than the sum of their parts and I think that’s worth something.
Saloni More is a first-year medical student at the University of Edinburgh. When she’s not stressing over memorising medical conditions and drugs, you can find her curled up with a book or running around the park, away from life’s troubles.
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