Learning curves: on being bad at things

It’s been interesting to see the ways in which musicians and other artists have been coping with the present situation – one which is, as we are constantly reminded, unprecedented. I know several who launched energetically into diversification almost as soon as the first lockdown was pronounced, pivoting as much of their activity as they could to the internet and going all-in online.

Others have battened down the hatches, keeping a low profile until it all blows over. This better suits those of us with a less entrepreneurial mindset, but it’s a strategy that takes a hit every time another lockdown is announced. I took something of a middle path, educating myself just enough in things audio and visual to be able to keep some form of online engagement just about ticking over.

Right now, this is pretty much all I’m doing: hosting online musical meet-ups with choirs in the evenings, and spending the rest of the time score-learning, battling ennui, and very cautiously planning the 21-22 season. (this latter must be done in whispers – if it hears us it might decide to go the way of the current season…)

However, I’ve also taken up something completely different: drawing. Full disclosure: I am very bad at drawing. Or, at least, I have always thought of myself as very bad at drawing, having displayed no aptitude for it at school – my primary-school cartoon strip, ‘Gauss, the Famous Mathematician’, being notable for its eccentricity rather than for any artistic merit.

After a couple of weeks drawing for half an hour a day, I am pleased to report that I am still quite bad, but joyously, entertainingly and divertingly so. It is a great pleasure being bad at drawing, especially because there is so much room to get better. When I do manage to produce something that actually possesses realistic proportions, or bears a passable similarity to its intended subject, this is an occasion for great rejoicing.

Learning curves

A few reflections arise from this (or would, but I haven’t learned how to do them yet). For one, the feeling reminds me a little of when I took up the organ. Doing so as an adult, post-university, made me something of an exception when compared to my colleagues in church music, who are almost all fantastic prodigies with sparks flying from their fingers and well-earned postnominals coming out of their ears.

What was so enjoyable about it was the almost physical sensation of my brain developing new pathways as I practised. It was as if I could feel the neurons intrepidly mining new channels, whilst I laboured to separate the fingers of my left hand on the keyboard from my feet on the pedals. I was experiencing that exhilarating first rush of the learning curve.


Because it had been so long since I’d tried to learn a new instrument, I had forgotten the feeling of making such rapid progress. I’d also forgotten the concomitant feeling of approaching the plateau and the enthusiasm fading away…

Being bad is good

The second reflection is that, at a time when it seems difficult to make material progress on my primary activity, it’s nice to have something that really doesn’t matter. My drawing has no purpose, no end goal, it doesn’t have to accomplish anything, it doesn’t even have to be good. It has no bearing on my livelihood, and indeed, unlike my livelihood, there is nothing currently stopping me doing it.

This chimes with one of YCAT’s recent blogs, by Kate Blackstone:

…find something to be bad at and get better at it. One of the reasons that music practice at a higher level is so difficult is that as you get better, it takes more and more work to make tiny amounts of progress. However, to feel good about themselves, humans have to feel like they’re good at stuff. In psychology we call this ‘competency beliefs’; you can reinforce and support your own competency beliefs by getting better at things, and reminding yourself that it is possible to get better at things.

I would say that in my particular case, even the ‘getting better at things’ part of it isn’t bothering me much – I am enjoying the focus that the activity of drawing is bringing me. But it is prompting a third reflection:

Growth mindsets

If you had suggested I take up drawing even a couple of years ago, I probably would have scoffed at you and pronounced, quite definitively, that I was terrible at drawing and had no natural ability at it, and that would be the end of that. An artistic avenue, closed off forever. But at least I wouldn’t have to worry that if I tried, I would be bad at it – I would simply never try, and therefore save the face of my fragile ego.

I wouldn’t say that my fixed mindset on that has disappeared – it’s still strong. But I’ve learned a lot about mindset since I finally read Carol Dweck’s book (never mind the fact that it had been recommended to me for months or perhaps years beforehand – what if it had contained difficult truths? Better to avoid…). The growth mindset believes that skills can be learned. Indeed, the lower the initial level of skill, the more opportunity for learning.

It’s interesting that if people say to me, ‘oh, I can’t sing’, I have tended to respond that everyone can sing. Why don’t/didn’t I have the same reaction to drawing? We absorb an idea of talent vs hard work early on. My school was a good school, I think, but I don’t remember anyone in an art class ever actually teaching me how to draw – it was just sort of expected. Soon it became apparent to me that there were some people who could just do it, and others who couldn’t, and that I was in the latter camp, Gauss notwithstanding. (The reverse also applied in academics – I seemed to be naturally good without doing very much, at least for a few years – the eventual realisation that I might have to start actually doing some work was deeply uncomfortable and much delayed…)

It’s an impression that stayed with me for a long time, until I realised that a good test of the growth mindset would be whether I could in fact learn to get a bit better at drawing, if I actually worked at it, and had the right teacher. The right teacher, by the way, seems to be the wonderfully enthusiastic Paul Priestly on YouTube. I would encourage anyone who thinks they can’t draw to spend a bit of time with his videos in order to be swiftly disabused of the notion. He’s the art teacher you always wished for – patient, permissive, bubbling with energy.

It’s interesting how hard it has been to quieten that part of the brain that thinks everything has to lead to something. Occasionally, as I admire a finished drawing, I catch this part muttering: ‘we could get really good at this and then sell them and then it wouldn’t matter if there’s a pandemic and you would be a proper artist’; and all sorts of other strange, ego-flattering pretensions.

Not everything has to lead to something. I didn’t really make any New Year’s resolutions this year – it felt like I could do with a break – but in my mind somewhere is the idea of ‘setting systems, not goals’. Goals can arise out of a good set of well-balanced systems – but they don’t have to. So I’m trying to silence the goal-brain, and just let the rest of me enjoy being quite bad at something quite fun.