How Failing At Things Can Help You Succeed as a Parent (And in Life)

It can be hard to step away from life’s big roles to learn a new hobby or skill. But becoming a beginner again has huge benefits.

by Tom Vanderbilt
Originally Published: 
A man wearing orange arm floaties while holding a surf board.
Anne Meadows/Fatherly, Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images

A little more than a decade ago, as I prepared, at the seasoned age of 41, to become a first-time parent, I began to have insomniac nights.

Many of these seemed devoted to questions of infant transport. For untold hours, I researched strollers and infant car seats, hoping to find the conveyances that would most safely shepherd my charge through a hostile world. I created decision matrices, cross-referenced ratings, studied product recall notices. Anything less than the best choice, I reasoned, would leave me and my as-yet born daughter doomed to a life of hazardous inconvenience. Small wonder that, as research has found, first-time parents are one of the population sectors most at risk for the onset of obsessive-compulsive disorders (with “thoughts of accidental harm” triggering much of the attempts at anxiety reduction). And, of course, none of it really mattered. Sure, my eventual choices did the job — the turn-radius of the Scandinavian stroller adeptly navigated narrow Brooklyn aisles, the government-rating-agency-approved car-seat cocooned my charge against the crash that thankfully never came — but no doubt other choices would have sufficed. Part of what was happening was that I was about to become, at the dawn of middle age, a beginner. This is not something that comes easily to people who are presumed to already know most of what they need to know. “Adult experts are confident about their abilities,” writes the computer scientist Peter J. Denning, “but when thrust into a situation where they need to learn something new, many quickly become uncomfortable and lose their confidence.” We become, Denning notes, even as the world continues to thrust change at us, “rusty at the skills of beginners.” We don’t want to ask the stupid questions, we don’t want make mistakes in front of others.And so, faced with this monumental new learning curve — and I didn’t even yet know what I didn’t know — I overcompensated. I turned parenting into a huge mastery project, where any potential pain point would be stamped out ahead of time. Probably, this was for the better. After all, this was a human being I was raising, not some tinkering project in the garage where mistakes were inconsequential annoyances. But it was tiring work, this pursuit of parenting perfection. I already had a career, one that locked me into upholding a certain set of standards and behaviors and expectations; now I had another (“the toughest job,” as the unhelpful adage goes, “you’ll ever love”). Stress was a constant, and any notion of “self-care” seemed, well, selfish. The psychologist David Palmiter has used the metaphor of an airline emergency to describe parenting: the oxygen masks have dropped, “and all of the oxygen is going to the children.”And after a while, I began to realize that the lessons I was constantly imparting to my own child — the importance of play, the inevitability and necessity of making mistakes, the usefulness of trying new things simply for the sake of trying them — were sorely lacking from my own life. Which is when I set out to rediscover the joy of taking on new things (call them pursuits, call them hobbies) simply for the sake of trying them out. I wanted to have some outlet for my brain and body that wasn’t familiar, wasn’t marked by expectations of performance. I wanted to subtly expand my definition of self beyond the obvious user tags of parent, husband, knowledge worker. I wanted room for play and experimentation in a life with little room for error.It can be hard to find the time and justification to step away, however briefly, from life’s big roles (career, parenting) to, say, try and learn guitar. But there are salutary reasons to do so. Learning something new, for instance, has been found, in research by Chen Zhang and colleagues, to act as a “buffer” against stress in the workplace (and, one might surmise, other areas of our life, like parenting). One reason why, they suggest, is that in learning some novel skill, we get an almost instant payoff of feeling as if we’re improving, that we have capacity for growth; we can then carry that psychic lift, that incipient superpower, back into our everyday lives. Solving a set of novel problems in one domain can make your everyday issues seem more tractable. When I first started trying to learn to surf, for example, after a few hours of getting bashed by waves (and nearly bashed by others on their boards), I suddenly felt that a momentary work crisis or the travails of a three-year-old were comparatively minor tasks. To paraphrase Nietzsche, what does not kill you makes you a better parent. So does learning. To children, parents are the ultimate experts. But can they too be beginners? In her book The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul brings up the philosopher Karsten Steuber’s idea of “re-enactive empathy.” As she describes it: “An appreciation of the challenges confronting the novice that is produced by reenacting what it was like to have once been a beginner oneself.” I can’t count how many times I’ve been at the sidelines of a youth soccer match and seen a parent berating their child for some lapse in performance. Forget that none of these parents are Jose Mourinho (the talismanic soccer coach); they hardly look as if they could score a penalty kick on an open net. What if they took up soccer, as an adult, and suddenly had a greater awareness of what their child was going through on the field? These fledgling pursuits also free us, at least momentarily, from the burden of living up to who we are. You enter a “Painting for Beginners” class and it’s suddenly Year Zero. Your identity has been stripped away. You might command a team at a company, but here you’re just an eager novice trying to find your way like everyone else. Your first efforts might be horrible, they might “show promise.” But don’t go in expecting them to be great. As the English writer G.K. Chesterton put it, “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” We talk ourselves out of trying things because of a fear we won’t be good at them, that our efforts won’t match some imagined criteria. I always think of a line uttered to the relationship-averse protagonist of Stephen Sondheim’s Company: “Don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect, buddy. The only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be.”It can be hard to leave your expectations at the door. Hobbies, after all, as the historian Stephen Gelber has noted, are strange things: They turn work into leisure and leisure into work. And in an age of obsessive productivity, that latter formulation looms particularly large. Everything we do must be for something. Even hobbies themselves acquire the aura of something prescribed, something reified into a good-for-you vitamin supplement — hence the panic evoked in Google autocomplete searches like “is hanging out with friends a hobby?”But don’t worry about choosing the right thing, don’t worry if it seems odd. It need not be, in the beginning, a passion — in fact, far better if you don’t treat it that way, for as research by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, when we think of things as passions, we’re more likely to turn against them when the learning gets hard (as if often does). And don’t worry about doing it well, at least early on. Perfectionism keeps us from trying new things, and it hinders the learning process, which almost by default is littered with mistakes. Pointing to the evolutionary process in nature, philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that mistakes are not just a chance for learning, they “are the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new.” It’s called trial and error for a reason; without the errors, the trials don’t achieve anything. The painter Wayne Thiebaud, who recently died at the age of 101, liked to call himself a beginner, despite his decades of experience. “Sometimes that’s the whole joy,” he said. “If you could just do it, there’s no point in doing it.” In the rest of our lives, where so much can be at stake, we’re perhaps not so willing to make these indulgent, risky bets.But a low-expectation pursuit is like a sandbox for the psyche. A few years back, when my daughter first got into Minecraft and Roblox, I didn’t immediately understand the appeal of the game platforms, with their comparatively clunky graphics, in an age of graphical hyperrealism. But as the legendary game developer John Carmack has noted, this was the point: “The entire aesthetic of the experience was so explicitly crude that innovative gameplay concepts became the overriding value.” Rather than spending huge amounts of time and effort to create a vision of visual perfection — which still might not yield an actually enjoyable experience — developers could almost instantly convert “mods” into exceedingly playable games. This, I would argue, is how you should treat your fledgling pursuit: Just dive in and start messing about. Focus on the thing itself, rather than the result. Give yourself permission to just be okay.

Tom Vanderbilt is an author and journalist who is a contributing editor of , , and . He’s the author of several books, including the s bestseller Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)His latest, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning was inspired by his daughter, and is out now.

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