Playing an instrument — especially when you’re not very good at it — has hidden benefits.
It’s the time of year when people young and old think about ways to improve themselves. New Year’s resolutions are one mechanism by which we attempt to stand out from the crowd, to push ourselves to greater heights and achieve fantastical success in one or more areas of human competition. Want to lose weight? Resolve to diet and exercise. Want to improve your GPA? Resolve to study 20 hours a week. Want to jump-start your love life? Resolve to join a dating site.
Yet as college students under increasing pressure to succeed, there is a temptation to focus only on those goals and activities that will help us excel inside and outside the classroom, to the exclusion of activities and habits that don’t necessarily improve your resume but perhaps help us become better humans.
Consider music lessons. Many college students give up the instruments they played in high school. After all, employers won’t care much about the cello on your resume if you’re an accounting major. You’re not going to be Yo-Yo Ma after graduation. It’s hard to justify the time taken away from homework, work-study jobs and friends.
Yet playing an instrument — especially when you’re not very good at it — has hidden benefits. Daily practice gives you discipline. Receiving steady and structured criticism from a teacher helps you become more receptive to criticism from others. Repeated failure, in the form of missed notes and botched performances, teaches you humility.
Think about intramural sports. Many people play sports because it helps them stay fit. What if you’re terrible at soccer? Showing up for practice, even when it means you will once again fail to be a star goalie, makes you more dependable. Playing with people whom you might not like gives you better social skills, and more opportunities to be kind to strangers. Submitting to the authority of a coach or team captain helps make it easier to submit to other authority figures. On the other hand, sports offer the chance for you to become an authority figure yourself, allowing you to take responsibility and develop leadership skills.
Or take a “useless” language. Languages are often encouraged because they can lead to careers in different parts of the world, or can impress graduate school admissions boards.
But there are other virtues in learning a language, even one that won’t help you “get anywhere.” Learning to speak in someone else’s vocabulary offers you a chance to see the world from a new perspective. It can cause you to pay more attention to the power of your own words, and give you more patience with those who struggle with your own mother tongue.
So why should you resolve to be mediocre? It’s not that mediocrity has value in and of itself. But when we resolve to be the best that we can be, we sometimes forget that there are dangers as well as opportunities on the road to success. We often think “best” means searching for “quantifiable achievement” rather than searching for those characteristics and relationships that are an unquantifiable good. We can focus more on ourselves than those who need our help, and later on, discover that as we’ve become more selfish as well as more successful.
In attempting an activity at which we risk being average, we may become better people. That’s not a bad start to the New Year.
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