Part of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.
I competed in forensics--college-level public speaking competitions--for two years. It was a tremendous influence on my life. I learned a great deal about writing, about working with other people, and about confidence. But one of the best lessons I learned from it came from failure at a national tournament.
At GMU, where I competed, the team was fiercely competitive--to an unhealthy degree, in my opinion. Reach the national finals, and you got your name on the team room wall, which was basically the highest honor they offered. I was eliminated at the semi-finals my second year year at nationals, but I went to watch the final rounds, and I was struck by something: yes, most of the finalists were better than I was, but the gap was not tremendous. To reach their level, I probably would have to spend another two years polishing my skills and adapting to some of the community's odd, inbred speaking tics--two years spent on diminishing returns, at the expense of pretty much everything else in my life.
What, I asked myself, was I really hoping to accomplish? Was I here for a handful of plastic stick-on letters in a GMU office building, or did I want to learn about rhetoric? There were other reasons that I left the team--a bad relationship with a teammate, wanting to branch out into other parts of the college experience, the desire to sleep in past 5 AM on the weekends--but that moment was key. That was when I realized that you can choose what to get out of an experience, and that those lessons could be very different from the intended deliverables.
I mention this, not just because I'm a former speech geek who sees most experiences through the lens of three-point structure, but because that realization has been a big part of my perspective on breaking. At 27, I was older than most beginners, and there are portions of the dance's daredevil side that I'll probably never master. As such, I'll almost certainly never win a battle. But that doesn't mean someone like me can't learn a lot from b-boying, even while acknowledging that the dance's competitive spirit is a driving force behind its development. So when making a list of what I've learned, I want to avoid simply listing off a set of moves and freezes, or complaining about all the things I'm still very bad at, and discuss the less obvious, personal lessons instead.
But you know what? It turns out that this doesn't have to be the case. There's no reason that your self-image has to be set in stone, or that you can't go out and meet new people and do new things. Perhaps this is obvious, but to me it was refreshing. As someone who has always hated the idea of "finding one's self" anyway, I've loved how b-boying has grabbed my life by the corners and shaken it a little.
Life's too short to take myself seriously. Besides, I'm a gamer as well as a musician. I regularly position myself in front of a television and A) twitch a lot, B) play pretend instruments with other people, C) stomp on a mat in time with music, or D) all of the above. Looking stupid can be a lot of fun. Worrying about embarrassment, not so much.
This is no small amount of what good teachers pass on to their students, whether in higher education or at a studio. It's what autodidacts often lack: the ability to prioritize and discriminate how they learn, and to acquire knowledge systematically (the same is true of conspiracy theorists, not coincidentally). The self-taught learners I know tend to suffer from this: they spend a lot of time running down dark alleys and backtracking, because they never learned how to learn. Every time I go back to the classroom, I learn a little bit about the metacognitive process, and breaking has been no different.
But maybe most of all, b-boying has reminded me that there are no shortcuts to self-improvement. When I find myself faced with a new task, I'm always tempted to look for a trick, some quick fix that'll let me master it. I think that mentality served me well early in life, and it became a bad habit. There are good and bad methods for learning, but the real improvement in my dancing (and elsewhere) has come when I stopped spending my time looking for shortcuts, and took the hard way instead. I have a lot of work to go. I'd better get back to practicing.