If You Want to Be Good at Something

Woman sitting on a bench overlooking Boulder, Colorado

Most people want to be good at something. They want to be like the characters they see on TV: doctors, fighter pilots, FBI agents, writers, musicians… all at the top of their game. Our social order is built around this type of obvious success. Wealth, influence, virtuosic skill that draws the attention of the many. A good number of us want to be good at making money, as this is a proxy for many other types of success. If you’re reading this blog, you probably dream of being a great climber, and choose to center your life around this goal.

But it has been my experience that people who are very good at things, the type of people who most of us look up to and admire for their excellence, are not necessarily the happiest people. Often the focus and determination required to be the best spring from a sort of restlessness, a dissatisfaction with oneself or one’s position in life. It is all too common for a person rich in possessions or achievements to suffer from a certain paucity of spirit. The major religions of the world tend to agree on this point, which is why they like to remind us that the king and the peasant are equal in the eyes of God or gods.

I have met few people who would say they strive first to be good at life. What do I mean by being good at life? I mean to be generally happy, to live by one’s own moral code as closely as possible, to be accepting of the world as it is and people as they are, to be comfortable in one’s own skin, to be balanced and stable yet not stubborn, to be honest with oneself and others, to see with eyes unclouded by fear and desire, etc. I think of a person who is good at life as one who, for no obvious reason, makes others feel at ease; a person who has a certain naturalness and realness. It’s a vague concept, I’ll admit. Like most things of true value, you can’t fully define it or directly measure it.

She who seeks to be good at life cultivates certain skills, I think: patience, self-awareness, the art of putting things in perspective. She should have empathy, without being easily swayed by others. Help others without neglecting herself. She must be flexible, fluid, adaptable. She must strive to improve without succumbing to the delusion of perfection (even the most finely crafted blade is a jagged mess when viewed under magnification). She seeks to learn when to hold fast and when to let go, and how to carry the profoundest things lightly in her heart.

When one endeavors to be good at life first, and good at everything else second, much becomes clear. (Although in practice they are typically parallel, and even interwoven, pursuits.) The world’s greatest baseball player might also abuse his spouse, seek competitive advantage through illegal drugs, or suffer from great egotism or rage. We would say this person excels in his sport, but not in his life. This seems like the most absurd of scenarios, but it is common, perhaps because there’s no organization dedicated to identifying and rewarding those who are skilled in the art of life. Scientists have the Nobel Prize, writers the Pulitzer. There are Emmys and Grammys and all manner of lifetime achievement award. But to win any of these is no guarantee at all of one’s aptitude for living.

It is a bit of common wisdom that one should set his own house in order before trying to change the world. Likewise that a person who does not love herself is handicapped when it comes to loving others. So it is with those who care only about being the best at some external thing while neglecting the internal—they have it backwards. How long should a person wait before turning attention to the real root of their problems? In Buddhism, it is said that our conscious understanding of this world is like a house on fire. As soon as we realize it’s on fire, we need to turn our efforts to getting out. There is nothing lasting for us there.

Academically rigorous minds will likely see these words as fluff… and maybe they are. It is only a sense I get; something I’ve noticed in my decades on this planet, trying to make sense of things. Still, it seems clear that if you want to be good at something, you should first aspire to be good at life, after which everything else will probably make more sense.