Finn McRedmond: I want to be uncool and enjoy stuff I’m bad at

Learning to cede dignity and enjoy yourself nonetheless is liberating

From that moment onward I avoided dancing classes at all costs because my abject dearth of talent made it hard to have fun. Photograph: iStock

From that moment onward I avoided dancing classes at all costs because my abject dearth of talent made it hard to have fun. Photograph: iStock

 

One of my formative childhood memories comes from a PE class. On the agenda that day was honing and perfecting our performance of the Walls of Limerick dance, seemingly a rite of passage for any child raised in an Irish primary school. What I may have lacked in natural grace I was confident I made up for in zeal.

And that’s when the teacher summoned me to the top of the class to perform one of the steps for the room. I eagerly and proudly obliged. All my hard work had paid off and I was being rewarded with the greatest prize of them all (attention).

“What Finn has just demonstrated here is exactly how not to do it,” the PE teacher declared, shattering my delusions of grandeur and turning my face redder than the surface of the actual sun. The only thing worse – it seemed to me at the time – than being hopeless at dancing was lacking the self awareness to realise it.

From that moment onward I avoided dancing classes at all costs. Not because of the PE teacher, though she certainly didn’t help. But because my abject dearth of talent made it hard to have fun; I was too acutely aware of the capacity for humiliation it afforded me. And what a shame I deprived myself all those years. Now, dancing is one of my favourite things to do (I would still opt for the club over a céilí but that is merely personal preference).

Capabilities

I put a question to my friends over the weekend. What are the things you enjoy doing in spite of being terrible at? Are there hobbies you love, in full knowledge of your limited capabilities? The results were varied.

“Cooking” was one reply, which was an apt answer since the last time I ate at this man’s house three guests ended up with chilli oil in their eyes.

“Netball” another friend said. I have never seen her play but considering that height confers a serious competitive advantage, I imagine her 5’1 stature is prohibitive.

“Gardening”, which was quickly followed up with “I have no idea what each plant is but it’s nice when they grow”. This rather sweet comment came from a 20-something woman and not, as you might expect, a child.

There was one thing that united everyone’s responses (singing, DIY, dermatology – that last one confused us all too): the accompanying admission that these were pursuits that came to us recently, as we entered our early or mid-20s. And they were hobbies that we never allowed ourselves to indulge in at school.

What’s the source of this commonality? There is the obvious case to be made that the most valuable social capital for teenagers to possess is being cool. And sincerely and uncynically enjoying the things we have no aptitude for is anything but.

Teens also have a penchant for cruelty, and protect themselves by moving in packs: everyone becomes terrified of sticking out. A poorly performed but thoroughly enjoyed choir solo could spell social ruination.

But this doesn’t strike me as the major reason. Rather, it seems the very structure of education precludes us from seeking fun in the things we do not excel at.

In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris posits that school is designed to craft and attune children for the workplace. What were once casual kickabouts in back gardens are now structured and competitive soccer leagues. Learning the violin is encouraged not for the love of music but to impress a college admissions board. The star hockey player could earn himself a coveted scholarship to an overseas university.

By training children from a young age – through every level of the education system – to be the most efficient and successful capital generating adults, it seems we have denigrated the childhood instinct for fun and replaced it with the grown-up responsibility of learning how to be a good employee. Adolescence, Harris says, quickly becomes an “arms race that pits kids and their families against each other in an ever-escalating battle for a competitive edge”.

Competitive

The result of this terrain is that children learn how to zone in on their talents (not a bad thing, of course), but push themselves away from enjoying things for their own sake. No one is getting on a competitive grad scheme on the strength of their Haymaker’s Jig alone, for example.

School then becomes a perfect storm for making the joyful seem scary and unworthy. But that fear of social retribution matters less and less as we get older, and the desire to be cool abates as soon as we realise the desire to have fun is a stronger impulse, one worth nurturing and protecting at all costs. Getting there requires a lot of unlearning the harsh lessons of our teenage years, and remains an ongoing process throughout our 20s.

What is most foundational to the having-fun-in-spite-of-any-recognisable-talent mantra is the realisation of how liberating it is to cede dignity and enjoy yourself nonetheless. The Walls of Limerick may still be my bête noire, but I am sure I will grow out of it.

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