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February 25, 2014

Passion in the pits

Sometimes admitting you’re bad at something is harder than actually being bad at it.

Over the course of my year and a half at this university, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my B in Math 152 will forever mark my grand egress from quantitative academia, and that there will always be biology major pre-med students who understand Marx more quickly than I do. I’ve decided that I want to spend my time in college just learning what I want to learn—all that “life is too short, so you need to do what you love” stuff. I thought I’d found the answer to living a life without ever having to worry about constructing the perfect résumé or impressing others, just by doing what I love.

So I sought solace in hobbies and decided to minor in music. I have never considered myself an exceptionally talented violinist, with an inordinately long list of failed auditions to prove it, but no one could tell me I didn’t enjoy it. Yet as I sat in class and listened to my peers discuss the differences between the greatest musicians of the time and compared that to my inability to tell the difference between the quality of a world-class performance and elevator music, I felt that pervasive sense of inferiority catch up to me again.

My immediate reaction was frustration. Am I so incompetent that I can’t even enjoy something right? While others had been going to concerts and listening to recordings of great musicians, what was I doing with my life? Probably watching Friends reruns for the 50th time or spending way too much time on Pinterest.

But strangely, herein lay my real answer to living a life without insecurity. Even though I really did enjoy playing in orchestra and listening to concertos, if my peers practiced for hours every day while I struggled to barely get through an hour a couple times a week, did I actually love playing violin? Without disregarding the aspect of discipline, if I don’t ultimately enjoy that process of cultivation, can I really call it a passion?

We see someone who seems impossibly better than us at something and characterize her as possessing some intangible, inherent superiority. Previously, I had always attributed my musical incompetence to lack of talent. But shouldn’t it be obvious that people who invest more time and effort into developing their skills in music are inherently more musically developed than I am? And frankly, the only thing that stopped me from practicing as much as others was that I just didn’t want to.

As Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” My true issue was never a lack of talent, but rather a lack of passion.

At a university where the valedictorians of public high schools, the salutatorians of New England prep schools, and students from all over the rest of the country are thrown into one classroom, the idea of “talent” often seems misused and overrated. What’s commonly perceived as talent is just a construct—a delusion created from circumstance and the pressure to find and invest in certain interests earlier in life.

As college students, we often consider this time of our lives as one in which we can figure out what we want to do; we are told over and over again that the best career in the world is one that you love. But we also tend to limit our search only to interests that have an established career path attached to them, like following stocks. We dismiss our more “obvious” interests because they don’t have a clear return value. Perhaps what discovering a passion really involves is digging deeper into what you already know you enjoy. There may be only so many times you can watch a sitcom, but there is a lot to learn about what instigates laughter or how to analyze media, for example.

We too often assume that hating the everyday trudge toward our dreams, or discovering our dreams, is just a natural part of what it means to work hard. I may hate econ P-sets and absolutely dread going to lab every week, but nothing and nobody can ever tell me that I can’t do it. But there is someone who can tell us that we can’t do it: ourselves.

Instead of worrying about being seen as a failure or trying to come to terms with “not being talented enough” and beating ourselves up for not being able to work harder, what if we considered the fact that we’re just interested in something else, even if it means giving up prospects of a more prestigious or idealized career? There’s a difference between learning to persevere and repeatedly finding oneself desperately searching for motivation to keep going.

All passions require dedication, and the idea of “no pain, no gain” is absolutely valid. But I also think that sometimes realizing and admitting that we actually don’t like something is harder than thinking that we can’t do something. Maybe it’s because the former doesn’t have as clear a solution as the latter. Maybe it’s the difference between telling ourselves that we don’t know how to do something and telling ourselves that we don’t know how to be somebody. Whatever it is, sometimes we waste a lot of time and energy fighting ourselves unnecessarily.

I still love music, and I still plan on minoring in it. I would still love to be better at violin, but it’s OK if I’m not, because I’ve accepted the fact that I just don’t care as much as some people. It’s not a passion. I’m reserving that for something that, at the end of the day, I can honestly say I love doing.

Grace Koh is a second-year in the College majoring in political science. 

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