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Just Have Fun or Get Better?

Frédéric de Villamil
Photo credit: Frédéric de Villamil, Flickr

A few years ago, when my first girl was two-years-old, she wanted to play my Bengali two-string dotar instrument. She plucked it. It twanged. I tried to guide her pudgy worms toward gentle strokes so it might purr, but no doing. Then, she wanted to pull out her mini-ukele. Similar deal. She set it down on her lap like a steel guitar player and pick in hand began plucking. It twanged. After a few minutes of random ting-tangs, I suggested another way to hold the instrument and strum it. She stood for my guidance for about 2.5 minutes and then said,

“No.” Not in the typical defiant explosive two-year-old way. Just in the resolved and clear-minded way.

“Put away,” she said. And that was that.

It dawned on me that at that moment, that time in her life, it was good enough for her to have fun with music and not fret about doing things better.

What is that balance for you – having fun or enjoying something and excelling? It’s different for toddlers,  whose brains and biology have not yet fully developed the joys of mastery. But for adults things get more complicated. Sometimes getting it right gets replaced with pleasing others, and we lose all joy of what we’re doing. A guitarist who gets better but has no joy in her strumming is a sad hack perhaps.  An adult who enjoys his picking but isn’t especially apt or skilled is, well, that would be me.

There’s a potential trap in isolating joy from mastery, as if the two are mutually exclusive.

There are other things – from the art of every day living to the aspirations of a career – in which the very act of excelling, of pushing one’s limits just far enough, deepens gratification over a lifetime. It’s that optimal play between joy and mastery I’m wondering about.

Recently, my little girl, less little, asked me how to hold a guitar and strum with some modicum of ease. That was pure joy for me.


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