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Be brave – be s*** at stuff

Back when I actually made New Year’s resolutions, one goal always topped the list: Give pottery a try.

When I started attending King Street Artworks in 2014, I was blown away by the ceramics artists – and, naturally, I wanted in. Giddy with inspiration, I made all the lofty plans. Start with reusable coffee cups, then work up to bespoke chess sets, then on to lifesize women’s bodies with animal heads – a critique of modern beauty standards. Exhibitions, an online shop, lucrative commissions … the world was my beautifully sculpted oyster.

And yet, year after year, my ambitions were shelved. Before I’d even handled a lump of clay, I’d talk myself down – I couldn’t do pottery, because I’d be bad at it. Without the motor skills to produce an award-winning line of feminist statuettes, what was the point?

I’m not the only one who struggles with this. Our culture thrives on expertise and proficiency – and if you capitalise on proficiency, even better. It’s the side hustle: Where every passion project, and passing fad can add extra zeros to the bank account. Start a new hobby, discover you’re halfway decent, set up an Etsy page/YouTube channel/self-publishing label, and watch the dollars come flooding in.

More recently, however, there’s been a pushback against the side hustle – with creatives refusing to commodify their passions, and partaking in their favourite extra-curricular activities … just because. And if they’re not particularly great at said activities? So be it.

Writer/editor Anna Rawhiti-Connell discussed this in her Spinoff article “The art of the plod”. After years of shunning new experiences for fear of “not being good”, Rawhiti-Connell took up running – and despite being “an objectively average runner”, she kept going.

“I have realised deep, soulful satisfaction can be found in being s*** at something and doing it anyway. I run for the freedom of knowing I can do something … because I want to. It provides respite from a world that demands we be optimising all the time.”

Escaping optimisation isn’t easy – and experts blame nature and nurture. It starts in the brain: A sense of achievement releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, responsible for focus and motivation. If it’s rewarding, it’s worth our attention – including success. Conversely, fear of failure engages the brain’s threat system, triggering the “fight or flight” response. Our survival mechanisms are hard-wired to avoid danger, however innocuous – for me, a wonky pinch pot.

In the outside world, achievements are currency. We’re obsessed with exceptionalism. To quote a 2019 Guardian article, “Even the most ordinary institutions are expected to be nothing less than excellent. Companies want to be ‘world class’, schools have become ‘academies of excellence’, and humble GP surgeries strive to be ‘outstanding’”.

Social media hasn’t helped. Neither has covid – with the economic fall-out adding pressure to commercialise one’s hobbies to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, as people are discovering, there’s freedom in, as Rawhiti-Connell put it, “humbling yourself before your limitations”. Doing something not because you excel at it, or in exchange for money – but because it’s nourishing for the soul.

Last year, I finally tried pottery. Was I bad? Kind of. Will I do it professionally? Nope. Was it highly therapeutic all the same? Absolutely.

My challenge for you, Wairarapa – try something new, and suck at it. Knit a scarf full of holes. Warble tunelessly in a community choir. Burn your first batch of cookies. And if you had fun anyway, try again.

The world needs less greatness and more pleasure. A 2023 filled with pleasure, nourishment, and imperfect coffee mugs? I’m down.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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