I have a greater appreciation for my mother, now that my children are learning piano. When I was a kid, it never crossed my mind that my mom might not thoroughly enjoy hearing the same simple songs played poorly over and over again. She made me practice, so she must have liked to hear it, right? Then my own children started playing those same songs, with the same mistakes, over and over again. It hasn’t always been very pleasant.
And yet I really do like to hear them — not because of the repetitive wrong notes, but because of where those wrong notes are leading. Now that a few years have passed, the things my children play on the piano are much nicer to hear. If they keep at it, the things they’ll play in a few more years will be even better. It’s the only way forward. No one masters piano overnight. And what’s true for the instrument is also true for life: If you want to do something well, the best way to start is by doing it poorly.
This is true of almost anything — musical ability and athleticism to mathematics and relationships. For myself, I’ve been wanting to get better at scheduling more intentional one-on-one time with each of my children. Life keeps pushing my plans, though, and it’s easy to put the one-on-one time off and say “after this week, things will be different” or “this is just a crazy couple of months,” while waiting for some magical slowdown in the universe to clear my schedule for me. The universe hasn’t gotten the message, obviously.
So what should I do? I know this is a good goal, so why not start? I don’t need to wait until I have three weeks of quality time scheduled in advance. If I have an hour today, there’s nothing stopping me from kicking a ball or building Legos or grabbing an ice cream with one of my children. This is too important not to do, and if I’m not doing it as well as I’d like yet, at least I’m doing it. I’d much rather do it poorly than not do it at all. Plus, momentum is a powerful thing — once you’re off and moving, it’s easier to take the next step, and the next.
If you’ve lived very long at all, you’ve experienced this dynamic in your own life as well. It’s true for exercise and prayer, cooking, job skills, and just about everything else. Setting a new course or developing new abilities is almost never easy, and we almost never do things well the first time we do them. Or the second. Or the 15th. But the fact that we haven’t perfected our skills in areas of need doesn’t change the importance of what needs to be done.
As G.K. Chesterton put it, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” He didn’t mean that we should stay bad at it forever; only that if something really needs to be done, then it needs to be done whether we can do it well or not. If a goal is worth striving for, then it’s worth falling down for, and getting back up for, and getting back up again for, as many times as it takes. Do the best you can, but by all means, do.
And if your best is poor compared to others, well, that’s really not the point — God didn’t give you time and energy and talents so that you could prove anything to anyone else. The Bible is clear about our efforts: The purpose of using our skills and developing our abilities is not to serve ourselves, but to serve God by serving others and giving to them generously because of all that God, in Christ, has given us. That’s why the Apostle Paul tells us to “serve one another humbly in love” (Gal 5:13). He doesn’t tell us to impress each other with our amazing abilities. In fact, he says the opposite:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil 2:3-4)
No one needs you to be the world’s greatest at everything you do, but they do need you. God put you where you are, with the people and the needs around you, for a reason. You don’t have to have a degree for that. You don’t have to come with experience. And how will you ever get experience if you never start? Excusing yourself from serving God and serving others because you don’t feel like you’re good enough isn’t a good enough excuse.
You will make mistakes, like my children do on the piano. But it’s the only way forward. Some things are worth doing poorly.