The Radical Act of Embracing Your Own Mediocrity

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Few things have brought me as much joy in the past several months as watching Jonathan Van Ness fall down.

At 31, the Queer Eye star decided to learn how to figure skate. He falls often; he falls without grace. Sometimes he sort of swan-dives forward onto the ice and skids along his belly. My favorites are the falls that seem to surprise him, the cartoonish whirling of his long arms before he hits the ice hard, laughing up at the camera in delight.

Sure, this is a curated social media feed: I’m guessing there are moments he curses, petulantly back-talks his coach, swears he’ll never skate again. But most of the time he looks genuinely gleeful, totally blissed out as he glides (or stutters) across the rink, enjoying the freedom that comes with doing a thing you love simply for the joy of it. Jonathan isn’t ever going to be a professional figure skater (although he will be playing one on TV); he has a successful career already. But he loves figure skating. He has always loved figure skating. And when the moment came for him to try it, he didn’t decide he was too old, too inflexible, too famous to risk being seen stumbling around a community ice rink. He said, “That sounds fun,” and he did it anyway.

Our culture pathologizes success. We pay people to photoshop our kids’ heads onto the bodies of athletes to get them into better colleges; we life-hack our way through meticulously-calligraphed bullet journals. I’m sure this has always been true, to some degree — no epics were written about “that 467th foot soldier who stepped on a scorpion and died on the way to Troy” — but social media has compounded our obsession for perfection. Insta filters contour our cheekbones and plump our lips; 30-under-30 lists pump narratives of geniuses we are always two steps behind. There’s the endless gray ocean of all of us, and then there’s the cream that rises to the top. That cream has 12 million Instagram followers, and you can’t get the red wine stain out of your white jeans.

What I have found so endlessly compelling and life-affirming about Jonathan and his figure skating is that he’s giving us a window into the struggle. There are few things our culture loves more than a “before and after” story, but rarely do we see the middle part, that mucky bit; or, more radical yet, the willingness to stick with mediocrity. Van Ness could have glided onto the screen 10 months from now with grace and flair, and we’d all assume that it was just another thing that came easy to him, a gift. Instead, he threw open the door and let us see what few people do: What it really looks like to try, to fail and to try again. And in doing so, he raised a question I’ve been asking myself repeatedly these past few years: What would life feel like if we changed our definition of success?

This is a question I’ve really only recently been able to consider. Between the ages of 12 and 29, I was so far out to sea with insecurity that the idea of being bad at something felt like drowning. I wanted to learn guitar, but three chords in I realized I wasn’t secretly a musical savant, so I quit before anyone found out. A few years ago, a friend tried to get me to take up drawing with her. We’d sit in her bedroom and sketch little animals and windowsills and plants. Mine were always bad. “But what are we going to do with these?” I kept asking her, as she kept patiently working on her drawing of what might have been a dog, or a croissant. She shrugged. I gave up.

Then, last year, I joined a choir. I have always loved singing, but I was passed over for enough solos and musical roles in high school that I came to understand I wasn’t ever going to be that good at it. So I stopped. But I missed it, terribly, and I felt myself wanting to stretch in that direction again, to sing even though I knew no one would ever applaud me, even though I knew I would never truly “succeed” at it.

Accepting your own mediocrity is a kind of small death — you are waving goodbye to the life you might have had, one in which you got to sing “99 Luftballons” with your college acapella group (I dream big). But it also opens a window to something arguably better: the soft, warm bath of ease, the freedom to do a thing just because you really like it. Just because it feels good.

Week by week, at rehearsal, I am becoming a better singer; ultimately, however, that’s not the point. In fact, none of the benefits of taking up a hobby or indulging a passion — lowering your blood pressure and risk of depression, increasing your creativity, etc — are predicated on succeeding at them. I keep singing because it stretches the limits of my heart. It gives me a new way to be happy. It’s a different flavor of delight. It’s the doing that makes a thing worth it. It’s the chasing of joy.

Chasing joy, rather than success, is a radical act today. We’re told to turn our hobbies into hustles. We’re told that if we only worked a bit harder, someone might finally see in us the influencer we were meant to be. Watching Jonathan Van Ness fall is a reminder not only that falling is how we get better — sometimes, the falling can be the whole point.

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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