In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, author Tim Wu stands up in praise of mediocrity, arguing that modern demands for excellence have destroyed the idea of taking the time to do something you enjoy, regardless of skill.
If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?
Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. The population of our country now seems divided between the semipro hobbyists (some as devoted as Olympic athletes) and those who retreat into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment.
Wu, I think, is on to something. In decades and centuries past, people “dabbled” in leisure activities. Winston Churchill, for example, dabbled in painting. Albert Einstein fiddled around with the violin, as did Thomas Jefferson. Theodore Roosevelt boxed (and lost sight in an eye as a result). Woodrow Wilson played a thousand rounds of golf as president, and rarely broke 100. Nearly every biography that I have read of a person who lived in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries discussed their hobbies — which often were pursued with great vigor but not great success. They seemed, however, undeterred by the lack of professionalism.
That doesn’t mean, however, that modest competence has nothing to offer. Amateurs who have loved their hobbies also have been responsible for some major advancements. Michael Faraday was a bookseller who dabbled in electricity. Uranus was discovered by an amateur astronomer. Mary Anning was a woman in 19th century England whose hobby-business of collecting sea shells led to the discovery of dinosaurs. There are a great many examples, but I don’t think that any of these trained and practiced with the idea of becoming world class.
Although Wu doesn’t mention golf, I think he speaks directly to the sport. I have met far too many people over the years who quickly gave up on golf because they “weren’t any good.” Others bailed because they “didn’t have time to practice.” I know single digit handicappers who swear that they will give up the game if their indexes ever reach double digits. All of that is nonsense.
I wonder how much of golf’s decline in participation can be attributed to the phenomenon described by Wu. After all, if you can’t hit it like Tiger, there’s no point, right? If you are not immediately good, quit and head back to the video games and tv sports.
Golf manufacturers, instructors and the media feed into this mind-set. What if — instead of pushing longer drives and lower scores — the golf industry started pushing fun? Or mental and physical health benefits? How about “play golf for the love of the outdoors, the camaraderie, and the benefits of walking.”
Golf as an industry needs to find a way to convince people that they can have fun without being particularly good. There is an old truism that the two things in life that you can enjoy without being good are golf and sex. I won’t comment on the latter, but I know that the former is true.
There is nothing wrong with being a mediocre golfer. It may even be praiseworthy. A mediocre golfer is engaging in an activity he or she loves without expectation of accolades or awards. There is just the simple pleasure of being out-of-doors with friends and whacking the ball around.
The mediocre golfer could probably get better, but at what cost in time and treasure? And would shaving six or ten points off the handicap make the game any more enjoyable? Or, with the added pressure to live up to expectations, would it make the game less so? I wonder.
In his NYT piece, WU hits on what I think is an undeniable truth:
The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.
Go out and enjoy golf, no matter what your score.