I may be capable of appreciating the occasional Impressionist landscape or a well-preserved Grecian urn in an art museum, but I am far from a Renaissance man. When entrusted with an electric skillet and kitchen knife, I make quesadillas and omelets, patting myself on the back heartily if I can manage to give my creation just the right shade of brown. My favorite iTunes playlist consists of an embarrassingly predictable mix of Billboard Hot 100 hits and a Bob Marley-MGMT medley foisted upon me by a cultured friend after I asked her what was playing on WXDU one time too many. One of my few areas of expertise is swimming, something I had to cut out of my routine recently thanks to a 15-foot fall onto hard-packed snow resulting in a back injury. Ski jumping is apparently not my forte either.
Perhaps due to my misadventures in the art, culinary, music and skiing worlds, I consciously avoid claiming mastery over something I have not spent several years doing. For instance, I will enthusiastically call myself a good cook…of bachelor food. I am good at skiing…for an uncoordinated Southerner. To me, excellence and enjoyment seem to come hand in hand. A deficit of one mandated a corresponding lack of another.
This theory was confirmed during my time volunteering at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, a behavioral economics lab focused on the myriad causes of human irrationality. One such project dealt with perceived mastery. According to my supervisor’s hypothesis, people enjoy an activity less if they consider themselves unfamiliar with it. One instance of this tendency we observed involved subjects sampling tea after taking a quiz they believed would reveal their level of expertise with the beverage. In reality, however, the results were random; no matter how many boxes of Earl Grey subjects had stored in their cupboard back home, half the participants were christened gods of tea and half were deemed more incompetent at understanding its subtleties than Panda Express workers at serving slug-free vegetables. After being praised or damned, tasters tried a number of teas and rated them for quality.
The effects of this categorization were significant. Simply being told by the final page of a digital survey that they had “mastery” of tea tasting caused people to rate the quality of the tea significantly higher than those who were told they did not. Feeling well-versed in something is just as important as being that way.
What happens when someone cannot claim competence at nearly anything, though? Over the course of the past three weeks, I have found the answer. Arriving in Berlin nearly three weeks ago to take summer classes, I suddenly became the epitome of incompetence. After spending half the plane ride learning how to count to 10 and order a beer (“Ein Bier, bitte,” in case you were wondering), I realized I had neglected more practical phrases such as, “Can you say that in English?” and “Where can I get free WiFi?” Without so much as a clearly established street grid, let alone a phone with Google Maps installed, to guide me through the city, I have spent more time wandering unfamiliar neighborhoods than ever before. I cannot even dress properly—my collection of t-shirts is now the laughingstock of the city’s bouncers as they turn me away in order to admit another horde of skinny jean and undercut-sporting Europeans. To quote this column’s tagline, the struggle has only intensified since my move to this side of the Atlantic.
In spite of these misadventures, however, I have realized failure is best dealt with in the same way as success: with both humor and dignity. Had I simply stopped buying groceries at the corner market after mixing up the words for “lettuce” and “cabbage” and walking home with the wrong vegetable, I would have been on a strict diet of frozen pizza and Starbucks for the next month. Inability to cope with failure is tantamount to unwillingness to challenge oneself, and we are all far too young and capable to feel anything of the sort. So, next time you commit a pratfall, whether in a foreign nation or your own home, laugh at yourself and move on. You’ll be one step closer to mastery.
Tom Vosburgh is a Trinity junior. This is his final column in a biweekly series during the summer.