Columns

2002.07.03 When bad is good

on . Posted in Midnight Musings

I can't dance, I can't talk.

Only thing about me is the way I walk.

I can't dance, I can't sing.

—Genesis


If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.

—Zimbabwean saying


By COLLEEN LEDDY

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

Ever hear that quote? I’ve seen it several times but I don’t remember where or in what context. The first time I read it, I was sure that either a copy editor had slipped up or somebody was playing a joke. It made no sense to me—even made me a bit angry. What a bunch of crap, is what I thought. That attitude just gives a person license to not do a good job. My philosophy runs more in the vein of: if you’re going to do something, do it right or don’t bother doing it at all.

I’m not sure where I developed this outlook. My mother wasn’t very hard-nosed or rigid about us performing perfectly. She had specific ways of doing things, such as folding towels—in thirds the long way and then folding the length in thirds—but I don’t recall her ever berating anybody for less than perfect work.

Perhaps the New York City school system ingrained it in me. I certainly remember Miss Mulvey haranguing me in third grade to re-do my penmanship when I got done early. There was no pleasing Miss Mulvey—she held us to an exacting standard. Maybe I just enjoy that delightful feeling of coming close to the perfect way I envision something; being able to achieve what I perceive.

Why aim for anything less than the beauty of perfection? That’s how I’ve always felt. Well, one reason is that striving for perfection has a tendency to result in procrastination and ultimately not getting anything done, and then there’s the tendency of not pursuing things because of fear of failure or looking ridiculous or worrying about what others might think.

I suffer from this affliction in some measure but ever since I’ve come upon that “worth doing badly” quote, I’ve been re-examining my “do it right” approach to life. I find myself lightening up in my expectations, letting go of the desire to serve the perfect snack, for example, as we “visit” each of the continents during the summer reading program at the library.

I’m remembering the importance of having fun and focusing, not on the fact that I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but on the joy in moving with the music—even though I have as much rhythm as a telephone pole and am keeping time to a different drummer. There is bliss in belting out the lyrics to You’re a Grand Old Flag that overcomes the embarrassment felt when you can’t maintain a note for more than four beats. And that joy overcomes the self-consciousness experienced while dancing poorly when (horrors!) others are watching.

Of course, you don’t want an engineer embracing the “worth doing badly” philosophy when designing a bridge, nor a surgeon about to take out your gall bladder. But in other arenas, especially sports and the arts, it’s a license to have fun, to participate in life rather than just observe it, to build memories of significant moments. When I think back on the times I threw caution to the wind and just did it—albeit badly—I recall great satisfaction and, sometimes, hilarity.

In high school, I played in a makeshift “band”—the New Hum-A-Kazoo Revue—at the Future Farmers of America New York state convention with my friends Adrienne, Bob, and Elan. We were the district winners in the group talent category (an easy feat since there were no other group acts) so we moved on to the state competition.

We had a little routine as we hummed each song. Standing four abreast, we alternated bending our knees and bobbing up and downas we played our little kazoos. Trouble ensued when I started laughing at the absurdity of our act and couldn’t quit. It only got worse when I bobbed down and stayed there. Adrienne and Elan tried to pull me up but we were soon an entanglement of arms and legs as we dissolved in laughter and Bob kept on bobbing and humming the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.

The fun we had and the memories of the experience were certainly worth the act of doing it badly.

When I went searching for the source that quote—G. K. Chesterton in What's Wrong With the World, written in 1910—I was heartened by other quotes I found in the same vein.

"The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything." - 19th century U.S. diplomat Edward John Phelps

You wouldn't worry so much about what others thought of you, if you knew how seldom they did.

  —Phillip McGraw, quoting his father

Until you spread your wings, you'll have no idea how far you can fly.”

—Unknown

Dance as though no one is watching you. Love as though you have never been hurt before. Sing as though no one can hear you. Live as though heaven is on earth.”

—Unknown

And I leave you with this, my new favorite quote, author unknown:

“Everything will be all right in the end, and if it's not all right, then it's not the end.”

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