Things I’m Good At
by Charity Singleton Craig
“Good job,” my husband said, when I hopped back into the warm SUV.
We’d just finished eating yet another pandemic Friday night dinner in the car and had driven to a CVS Pharmacy to dispose of the leftovers. I’d made the quick dash from car to outside trash receptacle and back to throw away the bag full of carryout containers, paper napkins, and plastic dinnerware.
“Throwing away garbage isn’t something I want to be good at,” I told Steve, pulling the door closed and rebuckling myself into the car.
“Sorry,” he said, as he shrugged, backed out of the parking spot, and headed for home.
My response might have been more gracious if I wasn’t still thinking about the time just a couple of weeks earlier when a dental assistant told me I was good at dental hygiene.
“Thanks?” I said, more as a question than a response.
“During your last cleaning, Courtney wrote down that it took only four units … that’s how we measure it,” she explained. “Most people have way more. Four is really great.”
“Well, that’s good, I guess.”
For a second, the compliment gave me that puffed-up feeling of pride. I’m good at something, I thought. But as the dentist continued fitting a crown on my tooth, taking it on and off to shave it down and be sure it fit correctly, I wondered why it mattered. Would I really be sitting here now if I was that good at dental hygiene? And what kind of compliment was that anyway?
Over the years, I’ve been good at lots of less-than-glamorous things. When I was on staff at a church, I could clear a paper jam in the copy machine like no one else. When I worked as a data analyst, I knew more about Excel spreadsheets than anyone else in the office. I can resize photos, complete tax returns, remember appointments, and even order durable medical equipment off the Internet like nobody’s business.
And the reason I know? These are all things people have told me I’m good at over the years.
Of course I do the same thing to the people I care about. Though my husband is good at tons of things that are important to him, the ones I compliment him on usually have to do with things like vacuuming the living room, packing the car, and choosing Netflix movies. Same thing for our sons. Over the years, I can remember telling them that they’re good at cleaning their rooms, turning in their homework on time, and clearing their plates after dinner.
Does anyone want to be good at clearing his plate? Probably not any more than someone wants to be good at dental hygiene or spreadsheets. But here we are.
Recently, our youngest son has taken up the guitar, and he’s getting quite proficient. As I was lying in bed one evening reading, I heard him practicing through the thin walls of our hundred-year-old house.
“You sound so GOOD!” I texted, because I’m also good at digital parenting, apparently.
But I heard no response. Not a text back. Not even an emoji. Not a “thank you” the next morning. Nothing.
And I wondered: have all those compliments about remembering to turn off the oven and texting me his work scheduled numbed him to my praise about the things that really matter to him? Will he ever believe he’s actually good at something if I continue to throw the phrase around so casually?
I keep thinking about that dental hygienist and her compliment about my brushing and flossing prowess. What made her congratulate me on something so inane? Did she think I’d be pleased by her admiration? Does she compliment all her patients? (Because really, I have no idea what 4 units even means.) Or did she simply see something in my life that was important to her? The possibility for connection. An opportunity to bless rather than curse.
In fact, as I think about all the times people have complimented me on things I couldn’t care less about, it’s usually when my skill, however unimportant to me, offers them some sort of relief, validation, or joy in their own lives. Getting the copier unjammed when someone really needed a document, helping with a spreadsheet so a client could be appeased, ordering medical equipment so my mom could have even a little independence following her debilitating stroke: my good work made a real difference to someone. Even if that someone wasn’t me.
And I’m sure I’ve complimented others for the same reasons: in the moment, when Steve thoroughly sweeps the stairs or Jacob handles his own schoolwork, it means I don’t have to be responsible for those things or worry that they won’t be done. It’s a burden lifted, if even a small one.
What do I really want to be good at? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately. If not spreadsheets and paperjams, then what competencies would quicken my own spirit? What mastery would make me happy? Decorating my home? Baking pies? Writing essays? Amassing Instagram followers? Wowing an audience?
And what is it in others that should capture my notice and nod? If my typical compliments are an expression of what others have done for me, how can my “good job” be a gift expressly for them? What can I notice about my husband and sons that honors their passions and interests? What can I acknowledge in friends and coworkers that demonstrates an understanding of their true gifts?
Maybe the point lies somewhere in the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, “Sincerity is the highest compliment you can pay.” Maybe “good job” isn’t as much a compliment in these situations as it is an expression of gratitude. Maybe the real compliment is the small act of kindness that didn’t go unnoticed. The real compliment is meeting needs, offering care, doing what needs to be done even if it isn’t glamorous or Pinterest-worthy. And if I’m honest, those actually are the things I want to be good at: compassion, mercy, love. Even more than a soft, flaky crust or a viral social media post.
Plus, if we have to brush our teeth and throw away garbage and turn in our homework on time anyway, isn’t it better that we’re good at it than not?
Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, who chases wonder through stories of faith, hope, and love. She is the author of The Art of the Essay: From Ordinary Life to Extraordinary Words and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts. She has written for several publications, including Edible Indy, In Touch Magazine, Redbud Post, InCourage, Christianity Today, The High Calling, The Curator, The Perennial Gen, Discipleship Journal, Tweetspeak Poetry, The Write Life, Grubstreet Daily, and others. You can find her online at charitysingletoncraig.com and Instagram @charitysingletoncraig.