We have this idea as a society, reinforced by our current American president, that the world can be broken down into winners and losers. If you win, you are worthy, and if you lose, you are unworthy. So many of us have this concept engrained in our psyches, that we are afraid to take risks. If we are known for being good at something, whether a career or a hobby, we continue to do that field or task, because we are assured of a successful outcome. So the surgeon who is a great cook knows how she will be in the operating room and the kitchen, and the yoga teacher who is great at photography, knows he can succeed on the mat and with his camera. But what happens if the surgeon want to learn photography or the yoga teacher has always wanted to cook? How many of us are willing every day and every year to be a beginner in some aspect of our lives? In a world of winners and losers, it’s a very scary proposition.
As a mother, I’m aware that in this generation, kids are encouraged to “specialize” in a given sport at a very young age, by age 8 or 9, even though it’s not in the interest of their bodies or their long term sports “career.” Injuries and burn-out are increasingly common as kids play the same sport year round and over use the same muscles. One of our neighbors in fact had two surgeries before she was 16, due to playing year-round soccer on multiple teams. When my son was younger, I was surprised to find that there was no such thing as a beginner baseball team for 3rd graders since kids need to start in first grade. Since he was a beginner he was grouped with a bunch of 6 year-olds. (The good news is that the little boys all looked up to him since he was taller, but still.) The same goes for tennis and soccer and lacrosse. If you’re a beginner at 10, it’s too late. And if you’re a beginner, you’re going to be worse than everyone else, and you might– gasp– lose, which in our society would make you a loser and no one wants that. So we adults tend to steer our young kids toward what they will succeed in, as opposed to letting them try things they might not be good at, whether initially or whether ever.
My son, who is 6th grade, tried lacrosse last year for the first time and hated it. As he said, “Who thought of the idea of all those boys running around with sticks? They just hit each other when the coach isn’t looking!” He and my 8th grade daughter tried musical theater this year and both loved it, which didn’t surprise me, since I’m from a music and theatre background. He tried piano lessons but likes voice better. She tried piano lessons and likes cello better. But as they make their way through exploring what they like and don’t like, what inspires me most is when they try things that they are not initially good at. My son this spring has been on track for the first time and since he is still small and is competing against older kids, he is not very fast yet. In fact, at the recent meet, he came in last. But what touched me was how he handled the defeat. He finished the race and held his head up high, and when one of his friends, who won the race, lapped him, the friend reached out to pat my son on the back. It was such a lovely gesture. I reminded my son that it’s not winning that teaches us anything; it’s losing. It’s knowing how to be graceful in defeat and to be proud of your efforts. You also can’t appreciate winning unless you’ve lost, just as you can’t appreciate success without experiencing failure because they are two sides of a coin. I reminded him that unless we are trying new things and putting ourselves in a position in which we might lose or fail, then we are not really living. We don’t want to get stuck in the same familiar roles that everyone expects, because in the end it becomes a trap.
For me, as my kids know, even though I was strong in the performing arts, I was not a great athlete, and I still remember the only two goals I ever scored in soccer. I also remember equally missing an important penalty kick and how supportive my team mates were. For every lead I got in a play, I most remember playing the part of a tree in a community theatre production of “The Wizard of Oz.” The year before I had actually played Dorothy in the same show, but with our small community theatre, and with just 6th-8th graders. This time around was a more professional show with mostly adult actors, and the best part I could get was as a tree. It was very humbling and a great experience, because I learned that there are no small parts, just small actors, which you never want to be. I passed on that wisdom to my son this past winter, when he was cast in a small comedic singing part, in which he had play four separate characters with different accents. He wasn’t the lead, but many people commented that he stole the show; he was funny and charming on stage. I reminded him of that when he left the field after his recent track defeat. For every win, there is a loss and both are important.
As you think about what your world stage is, remember to try new things and allow yourself to fail, to come in last, to burn the new dish, to create bad art, to just not be very good, because then you realize how freeing it is not to have to perform to others’ expectations of how you should be. This week, let yourself be last in some way. You may find, after a lifetime of striving to be first, that it’s very freeing indeed.