I am currently teaching myself to play the kalimba, and—at the same time—I am relearning how it feels to struggle and stumble through every song. I stopped taking piano lessons over a decade ago, and my flute skills have certainly declined since my high school band days. But even those diminished abilities are far, far better than my attempts at the kalimba. I haven’t learned the basics of an instrument in fifteen years. I haven’t been this bad in fifteen years. I had forgotten how frustrating it is to spend a half-hour learning “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and not even reach the chorus.
Children spend their days learning skill after skill after skill. Walking. Talking. Tying shoes. Writing. Long division. Riding a bike. But as we near adulthood, our rate of learning slows down. Our new learning becomes more complex, more likely to grow than create. Starting from nothing becomes less and less and less likely.
For the past three Christmas seasons, my mother and I have planned to learn how to make candy. We have a schedule of cookies that one or the other bakes every December: raspberry-orange thumbprints, sugar cutouts, gingersnap stars, chocolate-dipped Ritz crackers, peanut butter cookies with a red-or-green M&M in the center, and so on. Despite this grand variety of treats, we long to add candy to the Christmas selection, but something always manages to go wrong.
This year we dreamed of almond roca, and somehow—despite the tried-and-true recipe source, despite constant stirring, despite our constant watching of the thermometer—we produced a runny liquid instead of a crunchy toffee. We’re not sure how the process failed, but it did. All our baking and cooking expertise did not prevent that almond roca from winding up in the garbage can.
We do not choose most of life’s difficulties: illness, grief, injustice, and a thousand other sufferings will come into our lives whether or not we want them. But when we choose to learn a skill, we also choose a period—sometimes a long period—of failure. Trying something new often increases the risk of failure. Learning something new often requires a long time where we are the worst in the room. Ugh.
On Sunday, I went cross-country skiing for the third time in my life. Twelve years passed between a PE class tutorial and last winter’s first trip through the woods. Unsurprisingly, I fell several times last winter; unsurprisingly, the falls hurt quite a lot. But I loved being out in the snow, occasionally gliding through the paths others’ skis had created. I loved the cold air around my ears, the glistening trees above me, the swish-swish-swish rhythm I could sometimes achieve underneath my feet.
What pushes us towards perseverance, even when the moral pressure against quitting is low? What keeps us trying to develop an activity or skill, even when we’re admittedly bad? I don’t know. I wish I knew the answer, even just for myself and my stamina. Perhaps the answer is far too individual to be addressed universally, since personality, gifts, and experiences all affect why we find something worth our attention. The reward—even something like beauty or wonder—has to be worth the effort.
What separates perseverance from stupidity? What makes an activity worth our resilience? To learn anything, we have to keep going and keep going, but we also have to learn how and when and why to stop. My most joyful experience could be someone else’s most miserable. This is a wonder and a frustration.
A beginner’s rewards are far rarer than the expert’s rewards; at least, their rewards are different. A beginner kalimba player receives far less beautiful music while playing, but at least they receive the thrill of a new challenge. The expert might produce more beautiful music, but their senses might be dulled by the repetition. The expert starts to add more and more difficulty to the activity—not for misery, but for joy.
Much has been rightly written about the “tyranny of the new” in the digital age. But in the process of learning, the new can be a powerful force for humility. The new activity, the new hobby, the new skill forces us into a corner with a mirror. We are not as perfect as we thought.
And then? Maybe? A tiny glimmer of reward, of whatever it is that keeps us going. The satisfaction of running on stronger and stronger legs. The delight of participating in our favorite communities in different ways. A glimpse of beauty in a few notes, played almost the way I imagined.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.