C'mon Lyle

Is it bad to always want to be good?

Welcome to all the new people and hello to all you regulars who tune in each week.

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of my Hey Lyle advice column pieces. I would love to dive into one in the next couple of weeks, but I need more questions from you. So this is the part where I ask you to submit your anonymous question by clicking this big blue button:

Ask me for advice

Now, onto today’s story.

“Okay, so we’ll start with our medium brush and some white, blue, and a little bit of black paint for the sky,” says the voice emanating from my laptop.

I grab my brush, dip it into the paint, and strike the canvas.

“Damn it, that’s way too dark,” I say aloud.

I add some blue and white to my brush to lighten it up.

Nope. Still too dark.

“Ugh,” I drop my head in annoyance, “I guess it’s going to be a gloomy day in my painting.”

This was supposed to be relaxing. I’m only a dozen or so brushstrokes in and I’m already irritated with my lack of painting abilities—even though I haven’t painted anything since high school.

My mom brought over her art supplies so she, my wife Allison, my stepdaughter Sara, and I could all paint together on a Sunday afternoon. They had already done a few of these YouTube painting tutorials together in the past. I usually sit out to take care of my daughter Em, but she’s napping and she’s also much less intense to take care of these days.

I know how ridiculous it sounds to berate myself aloud in front of them. Yet I can’t stop doing it. It’s like an automatic reflex.

This is how I’ve been for as long as I can remember. It’s not a perfectionism thing for me, though. Competitiveness doesn’t feel right either, unless it’s competitiveness with myself maybe. It’s more that I just really don’t like being bad at things. Or, more accurately, I feel like I should be good at them.

I remember early on when I was learning to play the bass guitar—something I eventually did for a living—I slammed my hand and cut my finger on the strings because I couldn’t play a bassline properly.

I’m even fighting my inner critic right now as I’m writing these words.

It shows up in sports too.

When I was a baseball pitcher, as far back as eleven years old, I would get frustrated if I was having trouble hitting the strike zone. Later on, I took up golf, and as I got better, my expectations grew and I would exclaim, “C’mon Lyle!” as I smacked my back with the grip end of my club.

I’ve had similar self-critical thoughts and outbursts while throwing darts, playing poker, bowling, shooting billiards, or while playing a casual card game with my family.

In retrospect, it’s embarrassing to think about how upset I’ve gotten over relatively trivial games.

So what’s the result of this maniacal need to be good at these things? It means I usually become very good at them, or at least better than average.

Sure, it’s nice to be good at a lot of stuff, but it comes at a cost, which means my expectations are often too high. And that means I can get frustrated easily, which makes these activities more stress-inducing than relaxing.

This all reminds me of one of my all-time favorite quotes from Ira Glass, the host of the podcast This American Life:

I was critical of myself when I couldn’t paint well because it didn’t live up to my artistic taste. I slammed my bass guitar strings when I couldn’t play a bassline from an artist I wanted to emulate. I’m fighting my inner critic while writing this piece because I want to create work that’s relatable and moves you as a reader.

When I was on the baseball mound as a kid, I had dreams of becoming a professional ballplayer. As a golfer, I was trying to lower my handicap to play in tournaments and become a teaching pro. When I played professional poker, I wanted to compete in the biggest poker tournaments in the world.

As I start diving into something new, I often daydream about making it my career. Believe it or not, I even thought about becoming an artist while I was painting the other day. That sentence feels about as ludicrous to write as it probably does to read.

There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with excelling at these things. It feels amazing to receive accolades like, “Nice shot!” or “Great game!” or “Thank you for writing this!” But it’s also easy to attach my self-worth to the accomplishments and accolades, which is the root of the problem.

Becoming good at what I set my mind to is part of who I am and it permeates everything I do. I find myself wanting to attain mastery in too many things, which is not only impossible, it’s also not great for my mental health. It feels like my dream of becoming great at something is always just out of reach.

I don’t think my urge to excel is inherently bad, but along with it, I need to strive to be as good at relaxing as I am at other things. I need to learn how to enjoy something just for the sake of enjoying it. Because at the end of the day, I can’t achieve mastery at everything, so I might as well have fun being better than average in the meantime.

I’ll let you be the judge if my painting is better than average (please be gentle):

Thank you to my Wayfinder friends Mark Koslow, Shivani Shah, and Yashmi Adani for their feedback and ideas on this piece.

Thank you for reading. Don’t forget to ask me for advice.

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