Bad Actor

College is a great time to practice feeling incompetent.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

When choosing courses to take in college, most people go in one of two directions: hewing closely to their major and padding their GPA with easy general education requirements, or looking for the one course that will unlock their hidden passions and forever alter the way in which they approach life. What these paths have in common is the assumption that college should be oriented toward finding the intersection of one’s talents and one’s passion in order to prepare for a fulfilling life.

While that’s a lovely idea, as far as it goes, it is incomplete. At four-year colleges, there is enough time and space to do something much more interesting: take at least one course in a subject in which you are untalented, and about which you are not passionate. There is a lot to be learned by taking seriously that which you have no business taking seriously, and college is one of the last times you will be able to pursue something that you’re truly awful at without serious consequence. So, rather than recommending a specific course, I recommend a type of course: the type that exposes you to other people’s talents, rather than your own, and that which allows you to really bask in the feeling of utter, hopeless ineptitude.

In practice: I was a philosophy, politics, and economics major who would, upon graduation, find work as a computer programmer. About a decade ago, I shifted toward management, and I am now the vice chairman of Slate, managing teams of people, setting direction, and avidly producing and consuming spreadsheets. My natural tendency is toward intellectual introversion. And so, when picking out classes my freshman year, I tried the thing that was furthest from what I understood or where my natural talents were: intro to acting.

I wasn’t drawn to acting in any real way. I hadn’t grown up with the love of the theater. My only acting experience up until then was in my fifth-grade production of Bye Bye Birdie, having fought hard against my best friend for the part that had only one line. (He wound up with a part with two lines, which was, terrifyingly, twice as large.)

I also knew that drama was something that some people cared deeply about, and I knew that devoted young drama majors would be in my class. I wanted to see what they saw, even if I would never experience it as they experienced it. And I wanted to see how they went about constructing characters, building scenes, and inhabiting roles.

While my classmates and my professor were mystified by my decision to stay on through the end of the add/drop period, they tolerated me and even befriended me, perhaps because I was a bit of a curiosity. I found their ability to gain knowledge through physicality and empathy—through the act of being another person—both mystifying and electrifying. It was (and is) a stark contrast to my head-first way of approaching the world, and it was both eye-opening and humbling to see the extent to which the best students were capable of transforming themselves, and the deeper truths they were able to uncover.

The classwork consisted of performing scenes together, doing improv, and practicing movement. My contributions that semester consisted largely of vibrating with nervousness during scenes with my classmates, saying “no” instead of “yes, and” during classroom improv sessions, and imitating a monkey in some rough approximation of the Alexander Technique. I was, in short, irredeemably bad, and I, deservedly, received the worst grade I would receive during my entire time at college.

Throughout life, we all occasionally feel a lack of competence; college is a great time to practice that feeling, to proceed without mastery or certainty or even talent, and to realize both what effort can do, as well as what it cannot. In the technology world, we often talk about being unafraid to fail, and of failing fast, but very rarely do we find opportunities to practice—that is, to seriously try and seriously fail in a situation where the stakes are as low as a single grade in a single semester outside of one’s major.

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