Tell Me I’m Not the Best

When I was in third grade, I got in trouble for talking in class.

We were still at that point in school where our behavior was tracked with colored cards: “green” was a good day, “blue” was a pretty good day with some slip-ups, and “red” was parent-teacher-conference-level bad. From my first day of kindergarten, I prided myself in never going a day without a green card. The very idea of getting in trouble made my skin crawl, and so much as a gentle reprimand made my eyes fill with tears and my cheeks flush with embarrassment. I was the epitome of a goodie-two-shoes, and teachers always gushed to my parents about how well-behaved I was in the classroom.

On this day, however, the unthinkable happened. No matter how many times I was told to be quiet and stop chatting with my neighbor, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Eventually, my card that had never been touched was flipped to blue, and my world was flipped upside down with it. After school, I ran out to the benches where my mother was waiting for me, and immediately broke down in tears.

I got a blue card.” I choked out between sobs, as though I was confessing to murder instead of being a chatty nine-year-old.

My mother, seeing how distraught I was, decided to go visit my teacher in the classroom. I trailed behind her, crying dramatically in my purple jelly shoes and lopsided pigtails. When we got there, the teacher seemed worried that I was so upset, and sat us down to talk.

“It was unusual.” My teacher said, “She’s usually so well-behaved, but today she just kept talking. It wasn’t a huge deal, but I had to flip her card to teach her a lesson.”

“Right,” My mother said, “She has to learn to listen to her teacher.”

“Well, I think she already knew that,” My teacher continued, “What I really wanted to teach her was that it’s okay to not be perfect all the time.”

This was the first time I’d ever heard this idea. Although my parents never pressured me to be perfect, I had always had a compulsively type-A personality. The idea of not being perfect, and more than that, being okay with not being perfect was incomprehensible. I was the top reader in my grade, the kid who stayed in at lunch to file papers for the teacher, the kid who offered to help adults mediated fights on the playground. I had made a full-time career out of perfectionism before even hitting middle school, and the idea of being okay with imperfection had never even crossed my mind.

Although third grade was the first time I heard this lesson, and it’s something I’ve worked on ever since, I’m still working on today. In fact, as I’ve recently begun to learn how to Olympic lift, it’s something I’ve had to face head-on every day.

Today was my first time performing an exercise to practice pulling the bar from the ground in preparation for a snatch. My coach showed me how to do it, I loaded up the bar, and had at it.

“No, Maris,” My coach said, “You’re pulling your elbows up. Just retract, don’t bend.”

Although I’m literally paying this person to tell me how to do something I don’t know how to do, I was flustered by this feedback. I wanted to believe I was doing everything right straight from the get-go, and being told I wasn’t made me embarrassed by and frustrated with my abilities.

“Okay, thank you.” I said, and went back to the bar.

“No, Maris,” He said, “You need to keep your hips down. You’re letting them come up and it’s throwing you off.”

“Okay,” I said again, cheeks flushed, “Thank you.”

Once again, I went back to the bar, did my best to keep my hips down, and did the exercise for about ten more sets than I needed to, because I was determined to get it right. I wanted to do it with the speed, accuracy, and explosive power of the experienced athletes around me. I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing. I wanted to do it perfectly. 

My coach stopped me again- probably seeing the look on my face as I set the bar back down after another set I knew didn’t look right.

“Maris, look, it’s not bad.” He said, “You just need to slow down. A lot of it comes with experience and time.”

I immediately thought back to the day in third grade where my card had been turned, one of the first times where I’d been told I was anything but a perfectly exemplary kid. Unlike many people, I was fortunate enough to have endlessly supportive parents. While I have many friends who grew up under a barrage of derogatory comments and remarks like, “Why can’t you just be quiet?” or “Stop being so irritating,” I almost never heard these remarks. My parents did a great job of supporting my interests and hobbies, and frequently told me they were proud of me.

Perhaps on accident, however, they rarely discussed failures with me. It might be that it never really came up; I was extremely studious, and didn’t fail tests or really have difficulty keeping my grades up. I was quiet and bookish, and never acted out or got in trouble for misbehaving. I was never competitive in sports, and never struggled with losing a tournament or match. In contrast, my childhood was fueled by praise- “Maris is so smart,” “Maris is so well-behaved,””Maris is a great reader!” I got used to my teachers, parents, and adults in my life praising me for being “the good kid,” and anything less felt absolutely devastating to me. That day in third grade I remember feeling panicked, and wondering if I was no longer “the good kid” anymore.

Today, I’m lucky enough to still hear kind words from those around me. Although I’d like to believe I do a good job of staying grounded and not getting a big head, people who are important to me give me compliments on a fairly regular basis. People who I respect read my writings and take my classes, and will sometimes go out of their way to tell me that they respect me, too. Having such a positive, wonderful support system is something I’m remarkably grateful for, and I can honestly say that the kind words of my community have played an active role in rebuilding my self-esteem and helping me feel comfortable in my own skin.

But as a result, I’m rarely told when I’m bad at something. 

When I started dating my boyfriend, my mom said to me, “I like that he doesn’t just tell you all the great things about you all the time. I like that he gives you shit.”

In fact, this is likely a big reason that I was able to connect with him. Like my mother said, people often tell me all the nice things about me (and I’d like to think they’re being genuine when they say they like my writing or think I’m a good teacher), and it’s somewhat refreshing to have someone who has no problem making fun of me. I like having someone who laughs at me while I’m trying to jump hurdles for the first time, or someone who lets me know when I’m being grumpy, or someone who will tease me for my irrational quirks and habits: because it’s humanizing. While I’m never-endingly grateful for the kind words I’m able to read every day, it definitely can feed my perfectionistic tendencies. I get worried that people expect me to be or act a certain way all of the time, and it makes me afraid to be myself.

Although I definitely had to put in hard work and effort into developing my yoga practice, I was able to progress fairly quickly- largely in part to the fact that I’m young and, yes, young bodies are naturally more limber and flexible. I often get comments in the studio or on my pictures of my practice commenting on how “good” (I still don’t believe that you can be “good” or “bad” at the practice of yoga) I am. I’ll post a picture of an arm balance on Instagram or practice my forearm balances in the studio and get comments from people about how “they wish they could do that,” or similar. It’s been somewhat drilled into my head that I’ve found something I’m “good” at in the practice of yoga.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I have a big head and I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a truly advanced yoga practitioner, but honestly, it made me somewhat complacent for awhile. Sure, I could try to progress my handstands, but I had most of the arm balances down and was jumping forward and back in my flows and didn’t feel particularly challenged in class, so why should I? Everyone around me seemed impressed by my practice, so, unfortunately and somewhat subconsciously, I started to get stagnant. I stopped challenging myself. I stopped pushing myself.

When I noticed this, I started Olympic weightlifting.

Because frankly, I wanted someone to just tell me, straight up, I wasn’t good at something yet.

I think it’s good for me to not always be told that I’m great. I think it’s good for me to seek humility and try things I’m not predisposed to success at. I think it’s good for me to start from scratch and test my limits and allow myself the space to be bad at something.

Every day, I tell new students to give themselves grace in the process of beginning their yoga practice. I see the frustration when they can’t do everything right away, and I see the discouragement when their first class didn’t go as easily as they hoped or thought it would. And every day I tell these students that it’s okay to not be great right away. Every day I tell them to be gentle with themselves and not speak negatively in their heads about the natural progression of picking up a new skill. But I wasn’t practicing what I preached when I was allowing myself to become complacent.

When my coach was correcting me over and over as I struggled to learn that new particular movement, that was exactly what I was seeking when I began lifting. It’s not that I want to beat myself up over not doing something right, it’s that I want to practice embracing not being good at everything. I want to exercise the mental muscles we use to find motivation in imperfection instead of negativity and complacency. I want to remind myself that it’s okay to not be the perfect example all the time, to not be the person who’s ask to demo chaturangas or handstands or arm balances.

Because in real life, I won’t always be the example. I won’t always be the third grade’s top reader or the graduating class’s grand altair or the workshop’s exemplary chaturanga. I won’t always be the best choice, I won’t always be the winner, and, frankly, sometimes I won’t even be good at something.

I’m not good at everything. I’m not perfect. My classes are sometimes not perfectly sequenced, I probably swear more than is appropriate, I don’t always have the most sustainable sourced food, I snap at my brother and get irritated too easily when I’m hungry and I’m still not very good at Olympic lifting.

And so long as I don’t allow this to become an excuse to stop seeking improvement that’s okay. 

I’d rather be bad at something and know that I’m trying something new than to be constantly told I’m the best at something and stop challenging myself.

It’s funny how weightlifting has improved my yoga practice. Outside of the obvious (an improvement in total body strength and endurance), it’s reinvigorated my motivation to challenge my practice. I have a newfound dedication to improving my handstands and forearm stands. I have to prioritize time on my mat and have been more serious about my home practice. Instead of giving up on things that are too difficult and would take “forever” to learn, I start today in the hopes that I will be just a little better tomorrow because of it. I am capable of doing hard things. I am worthy of acceptance and self-love as I am, but what’s so great about a life that stands still?

I used to only do things I was good at. I’d take classes I knew I’d see success in, like Honors English or an advanced history class, because I was afraid to be bad at something. My senior year of high school, I took AP Calculus- and if you know me, you know this was a big deal. I have never been a “math person”. It doesn’t come easily to me, it’s not something I enjoy, and it’s not something I’ve ever really stood out for. While I was looked to as a “model student” in some classes (mostly ones centered around history or writing), I never was the top of the class when it came to math. I had to work hard to get an A, and it was a constant frustration to me.

And although AP Calc was no exception- I unfortunately did not find that I was a secret Calculus prodigy- it taught me a lot about myself. It taught me that just because I wasn’t the best, didn’t mean my hard work and effort was for naught. It meant that doing things we aren’t already good at builds character, skill, and experience far beyond the material or activity itself. It means that it’s okay to be bad at something so long as you’re willing to try to get better at it.

My teacher played a huge role in this realization: he never told me I was “good” at math. He never told me I was a natural, or that you needed to be a natural to succeed. Instead he praised and rewarded effort, dedication, and persistence. As much as I hated Calculus, I found myself going before school, during lunch, and after school to study for the AP test and learn the material. I met with friends who had taken the class before or were good at math. I never had 100%, I never got the highest test scores, and I didn’t magically become a “math person,” but I definitely gained work ethic and a new perspective on being okay with not always being the best.

In this class, and in the gym, I realized it was good for me to sometimes be told I was bad at something.

To be told I wasn’t the greatest.

To be told I had room to grow.

To be reminded it’s okay start as a beginner.

If we’re only ever told that we’re the greatest, we’ll become stagnant. If we’re always given the gold star or the winning trophy, we’ll never feel the need to improve. If we allow ourselves to develop a black-and-white mentality around either being the best or nothing at all, we’ll never try new things. Sometimes it’s okay to see things as they are, and instead of seeing that as a negative habit, seeing it as a step in the process of life.

Don’t stop praising people. Tell them they are loved. Tell them they inspire you. Tell them genuine compliments from the heart and mean it wholly. But tell your children and tell your friends and tell your loved ones that it’s okay to be bad at something. That’s the key to a successful life: not seeing failure as the end of the line, but seeing it as the beginning of your journey.

Do something you’re not good at. I promise, you’ll be better for it.

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