It’s just a plastic uke: The virtues of mediocrity

I play the uke several times a week. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, but probably not for the reasons people think. I do it because I’m not very good at, because, being not very good at it, I get to enjoy the process of becoming less bad at it. I do it because my typically habile fingers turn into sausages on the clear nylon strings and because this hamhandedness transforms me for a few minutes into a student, a learner, an eager newbie. I do it as a lark — because my cheap plastic uke is silly and fun — and because being this bad at something others do with such astonishing ease helps move me along my spiritual path.

Like so many academics, I have spent time in Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset category, as one of those learners who operates as if ability were an established part of identity — “natural talent”— rather than a new friend to be coaxed in and nurtured over time. For fixed mindset folks, Dweck explains, persistence can be especially challenging. We try something, suck at it, and because it doesn’t come easily, assume we lack the gene for it and move on. For fixed mindset people, there is usually little joy in casual amateurism. If your novice ego is badly bruised by the inevitable false step or off note, then why pursue new activities for fun? Remaining safely competent, fixed mindset folks can, of course, forget what it’s like to be unskilled, uncertain beginners.

My relationship with the uke symbolizes and exercises my desire to become comfortable with being inexpert. Of course, we’re all accustomed to leaving things in the hands of more and less capable others — the auto mechanic, the dental hygienist, the jumbo jet pilot — as a matter of survival. But the uke represents my chosen foray into playful amateurism, a place where I must rely on skilled teachers to inspire me and and show me the way. And, just as importantly, I recognize and name my own internal resistance, including my ego’s near constant craving for a quick hit of self-esteem, as I reach for my four-stringed friend. The uke invites me to do something I am not good at, and know I may never be good at it, and to put in the effort nonetheless, simply because this is what I have chosen to do.

And perhaps most importantly, I come to remember that becoming an expert is not really the point, not of playing the uke, practicing photography, learning Spanish, or of life. There will always be others who are better than I am at everything I do, except, of course, as Mr. Rogers taught, of being ME. And it is a tonic reminder that, contrary to American fantasies of being NUMBER ONE, a WINNER, and a true CHAMP, the point cannot possibly be to be the BEST at every activity one deigns to undertake.

Can I embrace mediocrity and failure without abandoning hard work and ambition to improve? I think I can and it is partly because I am more comfortable than ever with repetition, routine, and mediocrity. I pick the uke up regularly as a matter of course, give it a quick tune and then chug through ten or fifteen minutes of this or that lesson. I do not, for the most part, stop to ponder my level of improvement. I just pick the damn thing up and bang away at it. My real success, then, has had more to do with embracing process and practice than in becoming an incrementally better musician. It is more or less the same as how I go about cleaning my house, meditating, and writing this blog.

For the first few years I lived in this house, I watched a craggy old gentleman inch his way around my block with a walker each day, sometimes accompanied by an equally arthritic and grizzled black Lab. Their regularity and snails-pace tenacity were spellbinding. I quickly came to see, not a failing old man, curved and pathetic in his final years, but a living representation of repetitious perseverance. All our talk of objectives, goals and outcomes is well and good, but it would be an insult to describe the value of this man’s daily walk in such terms. He didn’t get better — he just stopped coming one day — but when I remember him now it is with admiration and gratitude.

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