I confess: I’ve cried at guitar lessons. As an adult.

Five years ago, I decided to start taking guitar lessons with my husband Steve. The idea was to have fun and learn something new. It seemed like the perfect, lowkey hobby, making music and escaping from daily stress of high-pressure jobs. Plus, experts were saying that adult learning helped create new neural pathways, a good thing for aging brains that want to stay nimble.

I was enjoying myself, for the first few months, until we started trying to learn Oasis’ major hit “Wonderwall.” It had a four-chord progression with a rhythm I could not master. The song I once loved began to fill me with icy dread, accompanied by the instructor’s voice: “One and two and a-three-e and four and a one-e and two and three-e and a four-e-and-a. Count it out loud!”

Steve had no such trouble learning “Wonderwall.” He mastered the chord transitions, even that tricky A7 sus 4 to E minor 7 move His fingers seemed to inhabit the rhythm naturally. Maybe it was those high school years in marching band. The chasm between our abilities yawned wide on this song and in our joint private lesson one day, I burst into tears as the instructor pointed out my mistakes and tried to drill me on the timing.

That’s me. I cry easily and my frustration with that song had peaked.

But there was something else to the outburst as well. As I often do, I had lost sight of the goal of having fun—of being an amateur—and decided I had to excel at it. That’s how I’ve been all my life. Inwardly competitive, anxious, always something to prove. Never content, or even able, to just relax. Never wanting to show mistakes.

That ambition has been an invaluable asset, pushing me to conquer any goals within my control, such as starting a business, earning a graduate degree, and writing a novel. It is less helpful when things are out of my control.

Every day, I never stop hoping that if I worked hard enough, created just the right TikTok video, crafted just the right ad, I’ll finally be rewarded with the recognition and admiration of the planet’s inhabitants.

I thought this month was going to bring that success. So many stars had lined up that I was sure this was going to be my launch into the stratosphere. I had a few big clients on deck, making all the right noises that they would hire me. My fourth book would be released and it had gotten some good early reviews. I felt in tune with the rhythm of the universe. This was no Wonderwall—this would be my breakthrough to achievement and respectability and financial success.

That’s not what happened. None of those things came true. And I ruminated on those failures, added new ones.

My brain was like a dog chasing its tail, whirling itself into a frenzy. Let’s stay awake tonight and remember everything we’ve ever done that failed.

Mindfulness apps didn’t help, nor did scrolling social media feeds, full of successes and smiles. Reading fiction used to be an escape, but now each mystery or fiction novel I picked up presented new opportunities to take my own measure. I wonder how many copies sold. I figured that plot twist right away. I’m a better writer than she is so why does she sell so many books? It was ugly.

And so finally I picked up the guitar and strummed a few chords of “Wonderwall.” It’s in the key of D major with a duple time, meaning that it has two beats (one strong and one weak) per bar. That vexing E minor chord is a little easier these days, with years of practice stretching and strengthening my fingers. The rhythm is soothing.

I practice using an app that slows the song by percentages. I played it at 50%, 55%, 60%. I improve slightly each time. Still not perfect. Still flubbing that A7 sus 4 to E minor 7 transition. I keep trying.
It’s okay to be an amateur. It’s okay to do things for fun. You still learn important things by being mediocre, like patience. Or humility.

So I will continue to practice “Wonderwall.” Maybe one day I will nail it. Meanwhile I’ll strive not to fear failure but to see it as an opportunity to explore and grow.

I sit on the couch and grab the guitar. I strum the chorus parts of “Wonderwall” without stressing about tempo, working on the chord transitions. After a few minutes of playing Steve pops in. “That sounds pretty good!” he says.

I know I played some flat notes and accidentally muted the D chord. He probably knows that too. But it’s all good.

How Learning to Be Mediocre Taught Me to Relax was last modified: by

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