“[A thing] for [People who don’t really do that thing]”

You know all those classes that are titled “[A thing] for [People who don’t really do that thing]”?

Yoga for Dancers. Music for Dancers. Ballet for Contemporary Dancers. Physics for Chemists. Physics for Poets.

I’ve got some mixed feelings about the general concept. I definitely don’t want to dismiss every class with this title: I’ve taken some very good “Ballet for Contemporary Dancers” and “Statistics for Behavioral Scientists” classes. There’s certainly value in catering to the specific knowledge base and future needs of a group of people. And being in a setting with people of a similar background can make people more comfortable working on skills outside their area of expertise.

But I also don’t love the idea of approaching a class as a [person who don’t really do that thing].

For one, I personally like the sense that I’m get the full-on, non-watered-down version of whatever I’m doing in all with all its nuances and challenges. I like to do ballet with hardcore bunheads and pointe shoes, yoga with yoga junkies and extended meditations, and science classes with all the number crunching.

But also, that sort of title sounds like an excuse: “Of course I’m not good at [thing]–that’s because I’m not really a [person who does that thing].” But why set such low standards for myself? And frankly, why should anyone need an excuse to be bad at something–particularly something they are currently working on learning?

Being bad at things is great. People should do more things that they’re bad at. You learn a lot more than you do by being good at things. Also, I hate being bad at things. But I’m working on liking it more.

Right now I’m taking a hip-hop class. It’s great. I’m pretty bad at it, particularly when it comes to freestyling (appearantly, years of modern improv training don’t stop my brain from turning to mush in a freestyle circle). But I’m trying to get away from those constant thoughts of “but I’m really not a hip-hop dancer” in class.

I’m dancing hip-hop, so I am a hip-hop dancer. That doesn’t mean I’m a good one. But I would rather embrace my position as a bad hip-hop dancer, and work on progressing from there, than categorically position myself outside the genre (while defensively reminding myself that I’m good at other stuff).

To borrow some wording from Roxane Gay, I would rather be a bad hip-hop dancer than not a hip-hop dancer at all. A “bad hip-hop dancer” has a chance to become a good (or at least decent) hip-hop dancer. A “really not a hip-hop dancer” doesn’t.

I would rather be a bad [whatever] than not a [whatever] at all. Because at least that’s a starting point for becoming a better one.

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The End of Productivity Worship

Have you had a productive day? Congratulations. You’ve channeled through the mucous procrastination barrier, grit your teeth, and powered through another unpleasant item on your to do list, simultaneously aiming for maximum time efficiency and counting down the minutes until a snack break would be justifiable. You worked “smart,” putting no more effort than necessary into the task, though you had to strain every muscle to keep yourself from turning away. You didn’t let your curiosity get snagged on little pointed details which could keep you off course. Nobody got time for that. Keep at it.

Until you realize that you’re spending your life deriving more happiness from having done than from doing. Until you get kind of sick of being a martyr in the worship of productivity, constantly flung back and forth between guilt-ridden pleasure and self-righteous misery. Or until you just crack, no longer able to breathe within the narrow walls of serious, efficient work, falling out into a field of undirected diversions and not particularly motivated to step back in.

For me, I started realizing something was off at the end of last year when I found myself procrastinating on my “work” by doing the same types of things that the work involved. I was putting off studying about the hippocampus by reading an article about hippocampus damage cases. I was putting off writing a personal essay for class by blogging similar essays. I was putting off researching gender theory by reading about gender theory.

I noticed the contrast between the momentum and ease with which I fell into my “indulgent” procrastinatory wanderings and the strain with which I plugged through my “worthy” work. I noticed how I was praising myself for “productivity” and punishing myself for “procrastination” despite the fact that the same exact learning was going on.

At that point, the whole work/play dichotomy was starting to seem arbitrary and not very…well…productive.

Realistically, I don’t think our drive to produce and complete is going to disappear any time soon, nor should we force it to. We live in a world which puts a premium on time, space, and energy. We all have deadlines and schedules and a whole lot of stuff to do. I’m certainly not about to start ignoring that. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t relieved to finish my work this weekend or that I wasn’t pretty unhappy about doing some of it.

But what if we found a little breathing room in the vast space between work and play? With practice, could we learn to gently steer our desires, curiosities, and inclinations towards our goals, instead of forcefully manhandling them down a fixed (and unsustainable) path?

What if we woke up and asked ourselves: What am I in the mood to learn? What thoughts am I itching to write first? How does my body feel like moving? The more I pay attention to my desires, the more I find that my “to-do” list and my “want-to-do” list have some intersections–or at least some points where they come reasonably close to meeting–and this shared space can be a good starting point for directing my energy.

Like a lot of people, I’m expecting to have a busy semester, filled with a lot to do and probably a little bit of strain in making it all happen. But for when I find the time, I’m adding these items to my to-do list:

  • Invest a little more in the value of your desires.
  • Work just a little stupider.
  • Wander just a little off course.

In the end, you just might end up going a little farther.

I Can Breathe Now

Recently, I learned that I can and should breathe. Particularly while I’m dancing.

I mean, that’s something I’ve been told every couple of months for the past ten years, but I’m still working on really learning. Knowing is different from learning. You know you should be working something instead of falling into the endless internet tunnel, but have you really learned that?

Breathing is something that is easy to put on hold. Sure it’s essential for survival and all, but it’s something I can do at any time. It’s important that I breathe every few seconds, but is it really that important that I breathe now? When there is so much thinking and moving and aligning and adjusting and feeling and shaping and projecting to do? Breathing can wait until the next break, when it gets easier, when I have less to do.

Not that I’m consciously thinking this–too busy. If I was thinking about it, I would realize that I need oxygen now, not later, while I’m working my hardest, not resting.

But I forget. We all forget. While we’re all busy going about the business of living, we forget that we have to keep ourselves alive. 

So take this as a personal memo. It’s time to breathe.

Inhale.

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Exhale.

Congratulations. You’re alive.