Friday, 14 November 2014

How Do We Know We Are Good at Something?

How do we know we are good at something? I recently started asking myself this question. Does one’s feeling or knowing of being good at a specific activity comes from within, or do we have to compare with others to find out?

The reason why this has been on my mind is that I noted that whenever I’m repeatedly told that I’m good at a certain activity which I enjoy doing, I tend to believe it. However, before I am told, I’m not so sure if I know that I am good, or say, average.

The dilemma here is that as an adult I advocate not comparing with others. I also believe that competitiveness is an ego-driven disease that drives us away from our Higher Self. Therefore I found myself compelled to reflect further on the matter. As I wrote these lines, I still have no definite answer to this question. All I have as reference are my own experiences which I will use here as examples, a bit of psychology, and a sole chitchat with my bungalow mate — a 43-year-old cool American photographer named Bret. 


When I was younger and playing basketball and ping pong, what made me know I’m good is that I would often beat others. I also made it to the teams and won some medals and trophies. Those were activities I enjoyed doing whether I won or lost. But, were the competition and the winning — and consequently, the comparing — the reasons how I knew I was a good? And if yes, were they the only reasons?

Later in life, I can say the same with other activities like writing and drumming. If I were living on an island or in a cave by myself, and I did enjoy the act of writing and drumming, would I know if I’m a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ writer/drummer if there were no one to tell me so? Is it possible to evaluate oneself without comparing with the average or even with a few others?

For writing, I always found it to be therapeutic. However, before the Internet daze and the social media I only wrote to myself. When I started sharing my writings in ‘notes’ on Facebook and received positive, encouraging comments, I began to believe in my ability. I knew from before that I could articulate my thoughts well and know how to communicate, but I think the responses coming from others are what reinforced this internal belief.

When I kept going with the writing and published my work, I received more comments and private messages from strangers complementing me on a certain piece they had read or on any other thing. This repetition of affirmation has again further reinforced my belief. Naturally, it gave me a healthy dose of faith and confidence needed to carry on with a different life path such as writing.

Even though I would still write and drum if I had received negative comments but maybe I would not have possessed the same enthusiasm that may be needed to keep going.

BòóM BôöM

As for drumming, which is my most recent hobby, I also enjoyed it since school days. I owned a few drums but, again, I mainly played to myself and consequently never really knew how good or average I was...compared to other drummers. When I had to chance to go to the mesmerizing Venice Beach Drum Circle and play, I noticed how people looked at me, often while they smile or dance. So I naturally assumed that they probably like what they see. Some onlookers even took pictures and filmed me. Why would they bother if they didn’t consider me good, I wondered to myself.  

A couple of weeks ago, a cute black man in his 70s was attending the Sunday circle. We were early so we jammed for a while by the boardwalk before heading into the sand where the event usually takes place. The man was carrying a heavy wheeled cart with some music instrument so I offered to help.

How long have you been playing? He asks me as we walked side by side towards the water.

I loved to drum all my life, so at school I would use the desks and benches. Later I got bongos and a darbuka (tabla), but the djembé is what I connected with the most.

Smiling, he said: “From the moment you put your hands on that drum, I knew you were a player. You know what you do? You count. Most people just play.

Hm. I have thought about that before because I ‘caught’ myself doing it. My hands actually follow a certain beat coming from within. I don’t sit there and count the beats, but apparently my mind does it naturally — almost unconsciously, sometimes for as long as 16 and 32 beats that I repeat in cycles. In smaller circles, the cycle often becomes the main beat since it’s usually the longest and the more consistent. This, I found out with time as well as from observing — “comparing with” — others, is not the usual as explained in the following excerpt from the exceptionally thorough djembé Wikipedia page:

The most common cycle length is four beats, but cycles often have other lengths, such as two, three, six, eight or more beats. Some rhythms in the Dundunba family from the Hamana region in Guinea have cycle lengths of 16, 24, 28, or 32 beats, among others.

I find this observation interesting because even though drumming isn’t new to me, but djembés are. In those last few months I may have only played about 20 times, for a few hours each time. What’s the mystery of these unusual 16 and 32 beat-cycles, where did they originate from? Perhaps in a past life I was a member of the Dundunba family from the Hamana region in Guinea.


According to the Social Comparison Theory, individuals are driven to gain accurate self-evaluations. The theory states that people evaluate their own beliefs, opinions, attitudes and abilities by comparing themselves to others in order to reduce uncertainty in these domains. In most cases, we seek to compare with someone against whom we believe we should have reasonable similarity. In the absence of such a person — the benchmark — almost anyone could be used.
People also compare with others to learn how to define their own selves.

Comparison in order to self-evaluate may be used for self-verification and self-enhancement. It could be a valuable source of motivation and growth. I believe that to be effective, this kind of comparison must be free from judgment. It should be considered an educational act since it consists of observation devoid of the ego’s negative traits such as envy, jealousy, and pride. The person here may be ‘comparing’ to learn and not in order to feel better or worse than others.

There are two kinds of social comparison; upward and downward. 

The upward comparison is when we compare ourselves with those who we believe are socially ‘better’ than us. Perhaps by observing them we’ll find the motivation needed to reach what they have reached, whether it’s a special achievement or a success story.

The downward comparison, on the other hand, is when we compare with those who we see as socially less fortunate. This could make us realize how fortunate we are and how grateful we should always be. We could also learn by not making the same mistakes they did. After all, we'll never live long enough to make all the mistakes needed to learn and grow.

Again, the only way ‘comparing’ here could have any positive connotations is considering it an observational task which does not involve emotions. If we observe to learn and we have good motifs, it could certainly lead to amelioration. 

To Compare or NOT to Compare

When I asked Bret about how he found out he was good at certain things, his response was slightly different. He said that whether it’s photography or surfing, he found that whenever he performs an activity in a natural way without thinking much of the outcome, it’s usually an activity he’s good at.

I then asked him about the opinions of others and how they shape, or not, how he sees himself.

When they tell me that my work is bad I get upset, but when they tell me it’s good, I think they don’t know what they are talking about. So I don’t wait for others’ opinions, I just do,” he replied.

What I learned through this piece is that there are several ways to know we are good at an activity. In my case, it’s a combination of two things.

One, observing others perform that same activity, as well as observing them react to my own performance — whether their responses are comments, remarks, critiques, or criticisms. And I’d rather say ‘observe’ than ‘compare,’ since compare has a competitiveness feel to it which I do not fancy.

Two, as highlighted by Bret, is when I find myself fully engaged in the Here and Now and time flies by. This happens only with activities I truly love.

As for the dilemma regarding not comparing ourselves to others, it appears to me that even though comparing may help us evaluate ourselves at certain activities when younger, as adults, such comparison and competitiveness should be discouraged and deconditioned from. It’s actually the system that breeds these traits at such young age with grades, report cards, gold stars, medals, and trophies. However, we are not responsible for the conditioning we were exposed to during our childhood, but as adults we are fully responsible for fixing it.

Comparing in its natural sense means estimate, measure, or note the similarity or dissimilarity between things. This kind of observation is useful in science, business, politics, or in sports. Though when it comes to people, comparison usually entails judgment; it entails preoccupying the self with others who we think are more or less successful, have more or less friends, or are better or worse looking than us.

That said, I still hold that the very act of comparing ourselves to others never really helps. Because it’s an ego-based value that usually breeds envy, jealousy, and pride. It is unhealthy and is often damaging to one’s self-image as it divides us into Us and Them.

Besides, we are all different; to each his own reality. We should never care about the opinions of others. It’s how we see ourselves — our own assumptions — that matters.

In conclusion and as an answer to the initial inquiry raised herein, while having others to observe may be essential for one to assess his or her self, especially at a younger age, but we should never be concerned with the opinions or validations of others in the first place. If we happen to bump into those opinions and validations, then they could be a source of motivation and encouragement and a great teacher. Other than that, we should not go seek them or obsess about their value. For our true self-worth will always stem from within.

As Bret and I agreed, who cares if you’re good or bad at something as long as you enjoy doing it.

Photo by Jarkko


How Drumming Changed The Way My Brain Processes Music

Why I Share Stuff

Different Shades of Passion

For The Love Of Storytelling

The Intertwining of Music and Sexuality ― A Djembefola’s Tale

Change Is The Only Constant

Things I Got Rid Of To Become Happier

Unfollow the Crowd

Are You Addicted To The News?

Dealing with High Awareness and Empathic Accuracy

Choosing Art Over Corporate and Academia

Artists Between Mindset and Motivation

The Writing Process and the Creative Block

On Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing

Some Soulful Artists Quotes
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