Hustle Culture Made Me Quit Pottery Class

Seven weeks into my second round of pottery classes, I decided that I hated pottery. The realization came after yet another lesson where I sat, frustrated, as my instructor taught me once again how to pull up the sides of my lopsided pot; yet another class where I failed to produce the chic bud vase and Blobjèt I went in intending to make; and yet another week during which I left feeling like a complete failure.
Which was definitely not my goal when I started classes in the winter of 2020. Like many people who picked up hobbies during the pandemic, I went into these lessons as a way to let go, without any expectation beyond learning something new and turning off my brain.
Advertisement
And that worked for the first session. I loved my Friday night classes! Over the course of 10 weeks, I got out of the house after staring at my computer screen all day, got to use my hands, and make about 10 extremely thick, heavy bowls (just bowls, the only shape I could master). And that was fine! Because I was a beginner — I wasn't supposed to have the hang of it.
But coming back post-lockdown for a second set of lessons, something changed. Sitting at the wheel this time around, I felt a heavy weight on my chest and lump in my throat, similar to what I used to feel sitting down to an exam in university. When my instructor asked what I wanted to make, I wasn’t excited, I was anxious, filled with a new internalized pressure that because I was no longer a novice I should have been moving on from bowls. I should have been improving. I should have been good. There it was, the nagging voice in the back of my brain that insisted I couldn’t even enjoy a hobby if I wasn't succeeding at it.
I've long feel this need to do everything well, a twisted reassurance that I’m not wasting my time. (Despite the fact that, in this case, wasting my time — or at least spending time doing something just for the sake of doing it — was the entire point of pottery class.)

When my instructor asked what I wanted to make, I wasn’t excited, I was anxious, filled with a new internalized pressure that because I was no longer a novice I should have been moving on from bowls.

This is known as optimizing, constantly trying to make something the best or most-effective use of your time. This feeling of not finding joy in the things you do for the sake of them is one that I’ve discussed with my therapist at length, and with women friends and co-workers who feel the exact same way. It’s something that’s been written about to varying degrees over the past few years: Millennials are feeling the pressure to optimize everything in their lives; we’re even trying to optimize our burnout.
Advertisement
Much of this stems from the way we were brought up and the world we live in. As Anne Helen Petersen wrote in a much-buzzed about 2019 essay on burnout, millennials have been raised in a competitive, frankly unforgiving job market, a gig economy, and a hustle culture that hammers into us the idea that in order to succeed we need constantly to push ourselves. COVID made it worse. With all this time at home all of a sudden, we were inundated with pressure to do something in order to make this time worthwhile (this time being literally living through a global pandemic).
This extends to our personal lives as well. In the era of self-actualization, young women especially are pressured to seek out activities that’ll bring us closer to the image of the “ideal woman.” You know the one, she’s well-read, has a good job (or is working towards one), and takes part in a plethora of extracurricular activities or (pre-COVID) travel that signal she’s altogether a well-rounded human who’s always bettering herself.
Except it has backfired.
Now, relaxing time isn’t relaxing unless we’re maximizing it, so even our hobbies have become chores. Which has been a rude awakening for someone who had, up until this point, thought of themselves as a Renaissance woman keen on trying out everything from pottery to horse-back riding.
Turns out, the reason I jump from activity to activity, never moving beyond the introductory course, is not because I have a taste for life and just want to stick my hands into everything, it’s because I’m afraid of being bad at anything. More specifically, I’m afraid of the self- and societal-imposed expectation I have that moving beyond beginner inherently means I have to be “good” at whatever activity I’m doing.
Advertisement
It’s the same reason I put my hand up anytime an instructor asks if anyone has been to fewer than five classes at my spin studio (I’m actually closer to somewhere around eight and will continue to use the line until at least 15, if not more). Even my pandemic early-morning quarantine walks have been ruined by this trope of ambition; something I realized earlier this year when I copped on to the fact that I always carry my purse with me — even if I’m going for a pre-work walk around the block — for fear that people will see me and think I don’t have a set end point or something to accomplish.
These might sound low stakes, but it also prevents me from ever actually trying something for me, and pleasing only myself.

The reason I jump from activity to activity, never moving beyond the introductory course, is not because I have a taste for life and just want to stick my hands into everything, it’s because I’m afraid of being bad at anything.

Trust me, I’m working on it. First, by identifying where these feelings of needing to be perfect arise from (it’s convoluted, but let’s just say that the guy who called me boring in Grade 12 does play a part in it), and trying to identify ways I can do things for pure enjoyment (like walking in the morning to a coffee shop, so I still feel like I have a goal, but it’s not skill-oriented). Because optimizing our lives to excess drains any and all joy from the very things that are supposed to make us feel good and be solely for us. 
In case you were wondering, I did quit pottery class. While that may seem like the ultimate failure, for me it’s one of the first decisions I’ve made solely for myself, unmotivated by fear, in a long time. I realized that I didn’t have to be perfect or get better at pottery, but I also didn’t have to cling to something that I wasn’t having fun doing, either. Which is why making the conscious decision to step away, not pop to something new immediately but fully step back to reassess what I want to do with my free time (if I want to “do” anything at all!), feels like a big step.
On the last day of my pottery course, I had two unfinished bowls. I took them from my instructor, carefully packed them in bubble wrap and trekked down to the subway where I promptly tossed them into the garbage. Maybe someone would pick them up and admire them, or maybe, they’d just go to the dump. The important thing is, for once, I really didn’t stop to think about it.

More from Living