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Painting the whole beetle: an adventure in learning to learn

I'm not very good at being bad at things. In fact, I have a track record of giving up on things if I'm not immediately good at it. (So I guess I'm good at giving up on things?)

Case in point: the piano. There's an electric piano gathering dust on a shelf in my house which was until recently gathering dust on a stand in the living room. A few years ago I started having lessons with a view to being able to accompany myself/my choir, but it was such a challenge to work through being bad at it. I'm a very musical person but my tiny hands made it very difficult to reach some of the intervals, and, well, I just didn't put in the practise because it was so frustrating not being automatically good at it. Of course if I'd persevered, I would have been really good by now, but that's not always how it works in reality.

A lot of this comes from my teenage years: I went to a very competitive school where getting a B was tantamount to a failure and I grew up thinking I was average at everything. It wasn't until I left that school and went to a local college for an extra year that I realised that I was actually good at stuff, and my attitude towards education changed considerably (and I worked hard and did well at both college and university).

("Fun" fact: I only went to that college in the first place to study English Language A-Level, because my school didn't offer it – I was told "the kind of universities our girls like to apply to don't see it as a proper subject". ROTATING YIKES EMOJI.)

As a result, I've tended to stick to things I know I'm good at. Singing. Web dev. Cooking and baking. But when something goes wrong – when the cake I'm making for my gran's birthday doesn't rise properly and it's all dense and underbaked true story – I'll have a meltdown and feel like a complete failure.

So instead of doing something I might be bad at and feeling frustrated, I'm much more likely to camp out on the sofa and play video games, which I can control the difficulty of if it gets too hard.

It's been an uphill struggle to try and unlearn this mindset; to allow myself to be shit at something for a while until I'm good at it. I'm always reminded of the quote from Jake the Dog in Adventure Time:

“Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

He's not wrong, but also I struggle to internalise that because of the years of schooling that told me if I'm even decent at something, there's 20 other people in my class who are a LOT better than I am, and who win the awards at the end of the year.

In a fit of uncharacteristic optimism I booked myself onto a one-day "How to paint" class. It always struck me as something I'd enjoy doing: the physical act of painting is really relaxing. I turned up to this class with a determination to lower my expectations of myself, and had the best time. We spent the morning on watercolours, which I had basically no experience with, and then in the afternoon moved on to acrylics. The extent of my experience with acrylics had been a cheap paint set I was sent as part of a team social where I painted a creepy looking Monzo card mascot in the same pose as the HA HA! BUSINESS meme, but I do remember it being very satisfying.

I had a good time with the watercolours but when we moved onto the acrylics I was struggling a bit. At the teacher's suggestion I'd picked quite a difficult reference image: a purpley-green iridescent beetle.

I got about 30 minutes in, and was really struggling to get the colours right, and the highlights were looking really muddy. The leg was pointing out at the wrong angle, and the places where I hadn't applied enough paint looked really rough. I said to the teacher that I thought I might have to give up on this and start a new one but she urged me to keep going with it, and see where it took me.

Two hours later, I had finished my beetle, and it was better than anything I'd ever painted before.

A photograph of a paint-covered board with a printed reference picture of two iridescent beetles clipped to it. The top beetle is a bright gold-green mix, and the bottom beetle is a purple and blue mix. Underneath the reference photo, a piece of paper is taped to the board with a painting of the bottom beetle. It is slightly messy, but the colours are accurate and the blending is quite good.

For me, painting the whole beetle was the first time in a long time I hadn't given up when things started to get difficult and out of my comfort zone. I persevered. And amazingly, I discovered I was Quite Good. Especially at blending colours together. The finer detail was difficult and I didn't use enough paint, but the technique was there.

And it occurred to me: I've been painting my own face for 20 years, of course I'm quite good at it.

I don't do it nearly as much these days, but in my late teens to my late twenties I'd do the most incredible colourful eyeshadow looks. I even had a makeup blog briefly, though I didn't persevere with that either! But this is it, this is me putting the time in to learn some base skills that have led to me being able to paint a bit.

A photo of me aged 23 with very colourful eyeshadow in shades of purple, blue and green, looking into the camera at an angle.
Me, circa 2012, doing my best Makeup Blogger face. Serious eyeshadow skills though.

I wasn't always good at it. I can think of numerous occasions where I left the house as a teenager looking like someone had put shoe polish on my binoculars. I've made some questionable makeup choices over the years and the execution has not always been on point, shall we say. But all of this is practise and the blending skills I gained from years of doing my makeup in my bedroom when I was bored have clearly stuck with me.

At the time it didn't feel like an active process of learning, much like when I was first building websites around the age of 10/11. It was a fun thing to do and I didn't really care about the outcome. I remember struggling to understand why my pictures weren't showing up on the page I'd made when I put it on GeoCities, even though I'd added a nice <IMG SRC="C:/Sophie/image.jpeg"> tag.

And then 14 years later when I started learning Java I marvelled about how naturally coding came to me. When I'd been building websites for 14 years. I'd put in the time! I just couldn't see it!

Realistically I know there are very few things one can be naturally good at. Singing is one of those things, but also people who "can't sing" can learn, and even if you've got a naturally good voice it's important to learn how to use it properly so as not to strain it, learn breathing techniques, learn how to sing from your diaphragm etc. People talk a lot about how talented some folks are, but is it really talent or is it skill, honed through years and years of hard work?

It's also very possible to have an aptitude for something, but you've still got to put in the time to learn it. I have an aptitude for languages and always did well in German and Spanish at school/uni, but I'm not anywhere near fluent in any languages apart from English, because I haven't put in the time.

I'm certainly not naturally good at makeup, or baking, or web development. All of these took a lot of time and practise to learn. And I still screw up a lot because you never really stop learning. My eyeliner may look great but you should see the pile of cotton buds I needed to tidy it up.

I spent a bit of time this morning trying out the watercolour paints I'd bought and it took a lot of convincing myself to keep going and not quit as soon as a line wasn't neat enough or the paint was blooming (a bit like a tide mark). But I kept going, and I painted an apple, and it's good for a beginner, and I'm happy that I did it.

A rough watercolour painting of a red apple which has green bits at the top.

This post is not a metaphor; I'm not using this painting experience to dish out some life-changing career advice. For me it's literally about painting. But I know some of you out there will have similar experiences to me, so I guess I wanted to dish out a bit of solidarity and tell you that sometimes with enough determination you can paint the whole beetle too.


  1. Robb Knight :prami: Robb Knight :prami:
    @sophie I feel this so much. I have so many projects and ideas sat to the side because I couldn't it right in the first couple of hours.
  2. @sophie I sorta deal with this problem, but I have to say I don't experience it much. I've been doing many hobbies since I was a kid, and I've always thought "there's always someone out there that does it better than you."When something is hard, is not that I will give up on it immediately, but I will definitely use other chores as an excuse to avoid it. But if I have vacations and so, I get to keep trying things I wasn't great at, or that I just ignored, and it pays to keep it up!
  3. Ethan Marcotte Ethan Marcotte
    @sophie This was fantastic, Sophie. (And a lot of it was…wildly relatable 😅) Thanks so much for sharing it.
  4. Jared White Jared White
    @sophie I love reading stories like this, and a very enjoyable read. 👏
  5. Mariya Delano Mariya Delano
    @andy an amazing read. Thank you for sharing! It really hit home for both me and my husband and our struggles with learning things.
  6. Alan Shortis Alan Shortis
    @sophie I feel all of this. One of my biggest issues recently is procrastinating when a task is weird or difficult and I'm scared to fail. And being rusty makes it all more extreme.Pushing past the resistance and getting to the 'I did that!' phase makes the next hurdle easier to overcome. But having that clarity in the moment is haaard.
  7. Adam Fortuna Adam Fortuna
    @sophie I quit piano too. 😂 I could never find a way to enjoy practice and without that it was a slog to improve.There’s a really good book on this topic you might enjoy: The Practicing Mind. It’s mostly about framing practice as playful and fun. Resonated with me - and made me understand why I’ve quit so many things. 😅
  8. Bob Monsour Bob Monsour
    @sophie Great piece. Funny that you mention piano as, at 67, I’m just learning to play and am dealing with these issues daily. I’ve found a song to learn that I love hearing over and over, even when I get it wrong. And that’s helping me persevere. I’m going to buy a book of Beatles sheet music to keep on track. Thanks for sharing what I’d be so many of us deal with.