The joys of mediocrity

I have been wondering this week about the importance of becoming really good at something. I’ve read a number of articles on balancing creative pursuits with full-time employment, and all the articles I’ve read assume that at some point, the creative pursuit will generate income and then you will leave your full-time job. There was an article in the New York Times last year which detailed how it was not enough to simply have a hobby, these days one’s hobbies should come with achievements and gold stars (and preferably an Instagram following).

It seems it is no longer enough to go for a run, one must now sign up for marathons. As Tim Wu writes, ” Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it“. As someone who is currently working out what success in life means beyond work, this is something I have been deliberating about a lot of late. How good do I have to get at my knitting, for example? Is it okay if I never learn to cable knit? That I am satisfied with lace knitting patterns? What about my jam making skills? I made red grapefruit marmalade that is really more like a rather thick syrup. It is still delicious on toast, and (as some of my friends have pointed out) it might work in some gin cocktail concoction too. Does the fact that my grapefruit marmalade won’t win any awards make it any less valuable to me? Should I be spending more time perfecting my jam skills?

I read a Brain Pickings article this morning, on Harriet Hosmer – one of the pioneering women sculptors – and in it she is quoted as saying “My motto is going to be, ‘live well, do well, and all will be well'”. But how do we come to define what is ‘well’?

And so we arrive at sourdough bread. I was never a bread baker before. In my previous life as a pastry chef, other people worried about breads and yeasts and things. I was focused on making cakes and desserts. So I never really learnt how to make good, sourdough bread.

But sourdough has been having a revival and I have been caught up in the trend. Many moons ago I started up a project called 52 weeks of sourdough. I wanted to get better at understanding sourdough, and better at baking sourdough bread. I’ve taken a few sourdough courses and absolutely loved them. I love the slowness of sourdough, the way you have to wait for it, cannot rush ahead. It is a patient kind of baking.

It turns out my ability to keep count combined with an extraordinarily hot summer meant that my plan to bake for 52 weeks in a row was entirely abandoned. I changed jobs and suddenly the weekends were full of other things. The one thing I have learnt is that sourdough does require some attention, and simply winging it does not result in good bread. Or any bread for that matter. So for months now I have not baked any loaves.

But last weekend I finally got flour down from the cupboard again. I fed the starter. I was off on Friday so thought I would try making a loaf then, only I did not read the instructions for the recipe properly and ended up with a ball of dough that was not doing anything. But it was okay – I simply started again on Friday evening, and then made bread on Saturday evening. It was delicious. We ate slices toasted on Sunday morning, with my gloopy grapefruit marmalade and some cheese.

My point is this: while I am trying to better understand wheats and yeasts, flours and hydrations, I have become okay with failing at bread making. And that feels like a big step towards something. Failure is not really part of my skill set. I am paranoid about failing at anything. So anxious about it that often I avoid learning new skills or trying new things, because of that fear.

I finished listening to The Clockmaker’s Daughter this weekend and was struck by a paragraph I heard yesterday:

It occurred to Elodie that the biggest difference between them was none of those things. It was their approach to life: where Lauren had lived fearlessly, Elodie always guarded against failure. It struck her now that maybe she needed to let go a bit more often. To try, and yes, occasionally to fail. To accept that life is messy and sometimes mistakes are made; that sometimes they’re not even really mistakes, because life isn’t linear, and it comprises countless small and large decisions every day.

If we really are headed to a place where even hobbies require success, then I’m afraid I am doomed. But if, a little if, we accept that we can be interested in many things, and explore being bad at them for a long while, then perhaps that is success outside of work? It is the joy of trying and failing and trying again. And the satisfaction of small achievements. And, in the case of bread, sharing those achievements with others. I don’t know? Maybe I am wrong about this. Maybe we are better because we take our hobbies so seriously? But perhaps this might be a clue to becoming satisfied with a life that is not defined by work?