When It’s Time to Let A Skill Go
Updated: Dec 9, 2018
I have been wrestling with this idea of what to do when you’ve spent the Gladwellian 10,000 hours (or more) on a skill and you slowly stop using that skill and are aware that it’s atrophying but you’re not sure what to do about it. It could be a language that you are fluent in but have stopped using and are getting rustier and rustier. It could be a physical talent that you’ve fine-tuned – playing the piano, kicking soccer balls – but your life has changed and you aren’t taking the time for it anymore. It’s just there, dying on the vine. Every once-in-a-while you have an occasion to use it and it feels good until it doesn’t because you realize how much a) you’ve slipped and b) how much work you’d have to do to get back to where you were before.
This has been bothering me for most of 2018. I see it in myself: I use to play music for a living and taught privately and just wrote tunes and had a good long time invested in learning how to perform, be a musician, book gigs, write songs, teach others to make music too…it was awesome but I’ve slowly made a change in direction these last few years and now I am not so skillful. And I wasn’t incredible before or anything, don’t get me wrong, but I sold cd’s in Japan and still get some royalties through my ASCAP membership and I had a song used in a TV show so I wasn’t totally terrible. Anyway, my point is that I was working hard in my workweek in that field so I could walk onstage any day at any time and deliver with confidence but now, if I were to walk on stage, you’d better believe I’d have practiced beforehand and would be nervous that I wouldn’t be able to do what I used to do so easily. It’s maddening. It feels like “What was all that work for?”
Today as I was running (a new hobby of mine) the thought came to mind that perhaps holding too tightly to a skill that has served you but isn’t serving you anymore will prohibit you from developing new skills that will serve you now and tomorrow. It’s not to say that I won’t make music for a living ever again, but honestly, I probably won’t. It will be something that heightens my personal joy when I play the piano or perform for fun with others or when I show my kids the CD’s I made or share funny moments that happened long ago on stage when I was a rock-star (you KNOW I’m going to spin it that way for my future teenagers) and that’s ENOUGH.
I don’t have to hold it so tight because I want to do other things now. And just typing that, I feel relief and also like I’m disappointing my past self. Like if I had seen this moment just now from 10 years ago, I would have been so annoyed with myself and not even tried in the first place.
Perhaps I need to say to my 26 year old self: “Thank you for working so hard. I’ve enjoyed sharing music with others in so many ways. What a dream! I will still be a hobby musician but I’m not going to hold myself captive to the level of practice and work it takes to be a pro anymore. Now I can take those lessons and other, deeper human skills with me into the next part of my life….I just won’t be able to play Chopin or sing Ella Fitzgerald with as much ease or beauty as I used to. And that’s ok. That was then and this is now.”
Are you holding a skill too tightly these days? Is your identity perhaps involved in that skill? I can see that in myself, I think that’s why it’s been such a struggle this year. If you are wrestling with the idea of letting that skill just drop away and not be sad but be thankful for it, maybe these questions will help. Take some time and think it over:
1. Identify what you WANT – new skills? Same skills, different situation?
2. Why are you holding it tightly anyway? Is it because time is worth more than money? You spent time – your life – on developing something and maybe you feel you are too old to learn new skills. Are you afraid? Are you proud? How do you feel about it?
3. If you don’t let this go, will you NOT be able to do the next thing – the thing you are excited about? Or maybe will you finally SEE what the next thing is to be?
Hope this is helpful. I also love this poem by Mary Oliver, which may be helpful, too.
In Our Woods, Sometimes a Rare Music
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.
Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone.