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Why You Should Try Stuff You Might Never Be Good At

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

By Nicole C. Kear

A few days ago, I gave my 16-year-old a trumpet.

He does not know the first thing about playing the trumpet — or playing any brass instrument for that matter. When he was younger, he dabbled in guitar briefly, and that’s been the extent of his musical training.

A few weeks earlier, we’d both been snacking on cheddar cheese and water crackers past midnight, which is when we conduct ninety percent of our conversations. I asked if he might want to get back into playing guitar over the summer. Or singing, maybe? For years, he’d sung with a well-known Brooklyn youth chorus and he happens to be very good at it.

“No,” he said. “But I’d like to play the trumpet.”

“The trumpet?” I repeated. ”Really?”

He explained that his burgeoning love for Bix Beiderbecke, the 1920s jazz cornet player, made him curious about trying his hand at the trumpet.

Honestly, the first thought that ran through my mind was “You can’t put that on a college application.”

I’m not proud of it. And I didn’t say it, of course.

Instead, I said, “Huh. Sounds cool.” And that was true enough. It sounded cool. It just didn’t sound useful. It didn’t build on his extensive experience with other art forms or exploit his prodigious natural talents. I wasn’t sure what would come of it.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I could envision him having a genuinely fantastic time messing around with something so unfamiliar. When was the last time my son, who spent hours every night studying and completing problems sets and writing papers, tried something just because it seemed fun?

When was the last time I had?

About sixteen years ago, as it happens.

I used to flamenco dance. And belly dance. I got a hand-me-down pair of pointe shoes and for a few months, I went to a ballet class in Midtown for which I was dangerously unqualified. I was not a dancer, and I wasn’t really good at any of it, but I felt curious and excited and drawn to exploring these things. It felt like I was learning something — not about flamenco or belly dancing or ballet, but about myself.

I used to knit terrible scarves with so many dropped stitches that the end product could only be called a scarf aspirationally. I used to buy wood and construct stands for my plants, which were wobbly and uneven, but it felt fantastic to get a harebrained idea to make something and then actually make it.

Maybe you call these hobbies? I’m not sure. All I know is that I used to try new stuff simply because it seemed fun and I could. And I haven’t done that in a long, long time. I’m not blaming motherhood. I just think that once I became a mother, I became so fixated on helping my kids explore their creative yens, I forgot about my own. With three kids and a job, it feels like there’s no time for pursuits that aren’t productive.

That’s not to say I haven’t been creative. I’m a writer by trade, and creativity is an occupational necessity. For my recent middle-grade novel, Foreverland, I had the supremely enjoyable task of inventing a whole world, a fictional amusement park, for the story’s setting. Every book I write allows me to dream up people and relationships and problems. It’s a job that brings me joy and satisfaction.

But it is a job. I’m invested in being good at it and getting better. I’m invested in the end product being successful on a number of levels.

It’s not my trumpet.


Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play, has a book coming out in December on exactly this subject called Find Your Unicorn Space: Reclaim your Creative Life in a Too-Busy World. I love that term: unicorn space. It captures the magic and whimsy and elusiveness of creative endeavors, and it also communicates the concept of having space, making space, which is what happens when you do something that is just for you.

I was thinking about belly dancing and unicorns and possibly buying a trumpet for my son when I came across a quote on Twitter that is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut. To be clear, the internet is full of apocryphal Vonnegut quotes, but the message is so damn simple, it cuts through the white noise and makes itself heard.

“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 said “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 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.”

As soon as I read this, I bought my kid that trumpet.

It came in a rectangular black case and when he cracked it open, the trumpet gleamed, impossibly golden and shiny. Of all the instruments I’ve ever seen, it’s the one that most closely resembles a unicorn.

He screwed in the mouthpiece and blew. Nothing happened. Then he retreated into his bedroom and, through the door, we heard various horn-adjacent noises. It sounded like he was wrestling the trumpet into submission.

The next morning, at a startling 8:30 a.m. (with the teenage time difference, that’s the equivalent of 5:30 a.m.) the sounds resumed. He was, I realized, excited to get back to the trumpet.

That night, my nine-year-old daughter and I begged him to show us what he’d learned, after many hours spent on YouTube. He played a series of scales, blowing hard, pressing on various valves. We lost our minds, screaming like we were watching The Beatles in concert.

“It’s working!” my daughter yelled. “It’s music!”

The excitement of discovery was contagious.

Maybe it’s all parents, or maybe it’s just those of Italian heritage, but I love nothing more than watching my son enjoy a meal — a delicious burrito, say, or a steaming bowl of pasta. It’s a relief to see him nourish himself. Watching him play the trumpet felt the same way.

It’s nourishing to undertake things irrespective of being able to “win.” It’s nourishing to engage in a process of discovery with no other goal in mind than the experience itself.

It’s inspiring me to do the same. I couldn’t be less interested in hammering wood into weight-bearing formations, and I am not feeling the flamenco anymore. But I’ll find something completely unnecessary and absolutely delightful that calls to me. And when I do, I’ll channel my inner Vonnegut, think of my trumpet-playing son, and give it a whirl.


Nicole C. Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You (St. Martin’s), chosen as a Must-Read by People, Amazon, Martha Stewart Living, Parade, Redbook, and Marie Claire UK among others. Her books for children include the middle grade novel Foreverland, the chapter book series The Fix-It Friends, and the middle grade series The Startup Squad, co-written with Brian Weisfeld (all published by Macmillan Kids’ Imprint).

Her essays appear in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, New York, Psychology Today, Parents, as well as Salon, Huffington Post and xoJane. She teaches non-fiction writing at Columbia University and the NYU School of Professional Studies.

A native of New York, she received a BA from Yale, a MA from Columbia, and a red nose from the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, three children and a menagerie of small pets.