The Gift

A golfer promises to overcome his most crippling fear: getting better
The Gift

Twenty-two. I’m fairly certain that’s the number of hobbies my children have shown an interest in over just the past year. I counted. I’ll show my work in a minute.

He’s 8. She’s 5. And the remarkable thing about that number is that in their natural state both of them are more comfortable being nonparticipants. When our son was 3, we saw our friends sign up their kids for soccer teams and dutifully followed along. He was the only kid who thought he should spend the hour during his games escaping to a nearby playground. When my daughter was 3, we saw our friends sign up their kids for gymnastics classes and figured it was worth a shot. She was the only kid in class not to leave their parent’s lap while the others tumbled around us.

That our children didn’t dive headfirst into every activity doesn’t mean they’re defective. They’re young and move at their own speed. Exposing them to new things and then getting out of the way is half the job. 

Their fear of those new things also didn’t surprise my wife and me one bit. Early on in our relationship, we identified in each other two overlapping, often parasitic personality quirks that we happen to share: anxiety and perfectionism.

My wife famously stared at her childhood bike for years, not sitting on it once until the day she knew she could do so without falling. What was she doing during those years when she refused to learn? Worrying about failure and using the nervous energy from that worry to study others. She watched their technique so that when the moment was right, she knew she wouldn’t mess up.

Procrastination, fear of public failure, worry over what can’t be controlled: These are all symptoms of the same disease, and one that we’re almost positive we’ve passed on to our children. The most dominant of dominant genes, even as it makes you submissive to the world around you.

Fortunately, our attempts at getting our kids to muster courage seem to be paying off. Sharing our own struggles has encouraged them not to make some of our mistakes. They both ride bikes, for instance, and there was minimal staring involved.

The road hasn’t been smooth. But we’re far closer to the destination than I would’ve guessed we’d be during those soccer games when I scanned the field looking for my son, only to find him hiding in the opponent’s net. 

The following is that list, one I admit could be an incomplete-because-I’ve-sort-of-lost-count inventory of the hobbies they’ve started, stopped or shown interest in during the last 12 months: 

Baseball. Lacrosse. Parkour. Aerials. Mountain biking. BMX. Gymnastics. Soccer. Sewing. Metal detecting. Targeted executions (just seeing if you’re still with me). Reel fishing. Diving. Target shooting. Airsoft. Hip-hop dance. Ballet. Modern dance. Rock collecting. Rock polishing. YouTube content creation. YouTube content creation with a focus on video games. Even more video games. 

You get the point. 

Does this sound like bragging? Because I promise it’s not.

It’s another way of saying that in the past year I’ve also been exposed to all of these potential hobbies. I’ve been offered a chance through my children to see what it might be like to pick up a new sport or pastime. I’ve watched their evolution, knowing that it could be mine if I chose. And I’ve chosen, time and time again, not to do a damn thing.

Sure, I have decent excuses. I don’t have a lot of free time. I just turned 40 and with that round number has come my first flare-up of plantar fasciitis, which feels like having needles jabbed in your heel by an electrified jackhammer. But it’s not only physical limitations holding me back. Outside of things I do to encourage them, like throwing the lacrosse ball with my son or practicing dance moves with my daughter, I have felt almost zero interest in doing any of the things they’re doing. Mostly, I want to lie down.

Watching the spark of a new interest catch some dry filament is part of the joy of parenting. My kids give me a constant reminder of what true curiosity looks like. They want to swallow the world whole. 

It may sound cynical, but I feel like I know how most of the world tastes. Plus, I already have my thing. And when I’m not staring at my phone, working or at the latest family activity, golf is the only thing I really want to do.

That I’m down to a single hobby isn’t much of a shock. What has surprised me is that I’ve never tried to formally get better at it. And I think it all comes back to that gene I share with my wife and kids.

The Gift

Bubba Watson is famous for saying he’s never had a lesson. He usually says it with a smile that isn’t quite as endearing as he thinks it might be. The point he’s trying to make is obvious: He, a two-time Masters champion and one of the most gifted golfers ever to live, did it mostly on pure talent.

Does that sound like bragging? Because I don’t think it is.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that a few years ago Watson acknowledged a crippling level of anxiety that nearly ended his career. Professional golfers have never been shy about asking for help, especially when it comes to their swings. Some golf coaches are more famous than the players they assist. So why has Watson made such a point of working alone? 

I believe part of it isn’t the fear of screwing up his natural talent or boasting on some weird thing; it’s about avoidance.

Anxiety and perfectionism and the wicked stew they create when poured into the same cauldron tell you it’s better not to try. Trying means to open yourself up to the potential that you might not be good enough. Trying means to show up, day in and day out, and still not succeed, thereby proving you’re a failure. Whereas not trying at least leaves open the possibility that you could’ve succeeded.

Avoidance lets you trick yourself into imagining what might’ve been instead of having the certainty of knowing what is. It allows you to fake some nonchalance. Some detachment from outcome. Even as that outcome dominates your waking thoughts. 

If you succeed despite yourself, you’re just naturally talented. If you fail, of course you did: You didn’t try. It’s an attitude that I can say, with ample personal experience, is the absolute stupidest way to go through life. It’s also more common than I originally suspected. 

Failure despite effort might hurt. In fact, it might hurt a lot. Personal or professional setbacks that came despite trying are often the events that trigger a spiral into self-doubt. I very much understand why people like me often seek to avoid that pain.

Its reverse, though, is just a way to defer the pain. And to let that pain metastasize from something that’s acute into something that’s chronic. That’s called regret. If you’ve ever read a story about some social-science researcher going into an old folks’ home and asking the residents what they regret most—and I’ve read many—you’ll see the same pattern: regret over the things they didn’t do, not the things they did.

What kept them from it? What’s the calculation that made the pain of future regret less than the pain of current failure? In most cases, though maybe not all, it had to do with a more powerful emotion: fear. Researchers even have a technical term for it: atychiphobia—extreme fear of failing.

Watson has never directly said that was the reason he didn’t take a lesson. I’m taking some very serious armchair-psychology liberties here.

 It just sounds familiar to me as someone who also knows that their mind can be, at times, an endless hall of mirrors where it seems as if someone is laughing at you in each reflection.

I assure you this is the only comparison I’ll make between Watson’s golf game and mine. I can also see how a fear of failure has kept me from ever working to get better at the one and only hobby I’ve ever loved. 

Recently, a friend who’s been playing only a year or so started seeing a swing coach. I’m jealous of how much information he now has about his game. I’ve never seen my swing on video, since I, too, have never taken a lesson. 

My friend, on the other hand, knows exactly what percentage of his weight is on which part of which foot at every point in his swing. More importantly, this information is actually making him better at golf and, ahem, a happier person in the process. 

I’m now old and mature enough to acknowledge that, fears be damned, I want that too. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

In 2021, The Atlantic ran a story called “Go Ahead and Fail.” It’s about what anxiety and perfectionism can do to people, and features a story from an oncologist. That doctor says that when he gives patients terrible news about a diagnosis that might end their life sooner than they’d hoped, he counsels them not to do what his most anxious, controlling patients often can’t help but do: lose themselves in a rabbit hole trying to find an unlikely cure.

Instead, the doctor tells them to start each day with a mantra: “I do not know what will happen next week or next year. But I know I have the gift of this day, and I will not waste it.”

To me, that story rhymes with a mental model made famous by Jeff Bezos. When the Amazon founder was weighing whether to quit his high-paying job to pursue a dream of shipping books using the internet, he coined a term: regret-minimization framework. Bezos wanted to spell out exactly what he could do today that would ensure the least amount of regret tomorrow. The opposite of avoidance. 

“I do not know what will happen next week or next year. But I know I have the gift of this day, and I will not waste it.”

A friend of mine was just encouraged by a career coach to write down all the things she’d like to do before she dies. Regret minimization at its best. If that list existed for me, seeing where I max out on a golf course would be there. High up, in fact.

Not because I have a number in mind—some handicap goal. Or because I want to be able to utter the single sweetest syllable in golf: scratch. It’s because my fear of never trying has finally eclipsed the fear of trying and failing. All it took was 39 years plus one more watching my kids happily hop from hobby to hobby.

I do not know what will happen next week or next year. Though I can say with some certainty that an electrified jackhammer in my foot will one day be joined by some exotic new pain in some other joint. Time, and a pain-free backswing, are not on my side. 

What I do know is that I have the gift of this day. Wasting it has been tried. I’d like to try something new.