Being Bad

I have spent a lot of time in my life being scared about being bad at stuff. I think most everyone feels that way about at least some things, but because I had built a lot of my personality and how-I-present-to-the-world around being smart and having it together and being considered a responsible human being.

And those things aren’t bad in themselves! Being a responsible human being has its benefits, of course (I have a 401k!). But I had also painted myself into a box that meant a lot of my self-worth was tied up in not making a fool out of myself. That’s fine in a lot of circumstances, but it became a real blocker when I wanted to try anything new. I was (still am, actually!) scared to try things that I might not be good at for fear of looking stupid.

It turns out that this is a huge limitation on potential life happiness! Being willing to be bad at things, and to be bad at them publicly opens up a lot of doors for new fun experiences that have allowed me to really dramatically broaden my horizons in the last few years. I’ve said before that moving to Mexico was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made — there are lots of reasons for it, but a big one is that learning Spanish in Mexico forced me to look stupid constantly for going on two years now.

I say stuff in Spanish that sounds very dumb all the time! Sometimes people laugh at me and it is embarrassing! I do not enjoy being laughed at. My cheeks blush and I often spend weeks reflecting on the dumb thing that I said and feeling bad about it. BUT, the exposure therapy of trying to exist in a new language as an adult has made me much more comfortable being bad at lots of other things, which has opened up lots of fun new activities that I wouldn’t have dared try before.

I’m terrible at playing guitar. I’m in my 30s, and it is seriously embarrassing how bad I am at guitar. But I’m having a lot of fun learning to play and I have accepted the fact that for at least the next two years I will be terrible and there’s just nothing to be done about that other than to keep practicing — if I can suck a bit less every day and have fun while doing it, then I count it as a win. Accepting that I’m just going to be bad for a while, and not stressing about impressing other people has been incredibly freeing. The same goes for photography — I see photographers on Instagram whose work I really admire and I think “holy shit they are so much better than me”. But instead of letting that freeze me, I’ve started to say to myself: “well you better focus on practicing deliberately if you ever want to catch up”.

And that mental shift has been huge for me this year — I try (but don’t always succeed) to keep in mind that with deliberate practice I can get better at just about anything. So if I want to get good at something, I need to:

  1. Be bad
  2. Start today
  3. Practice consistently
  4. Be less bad

It turns out that steps one and two are the hardest — once I admit that I’m bad and something and that’s okay then I can just focus on practicing deliberately and sucking less. If I want to be good at something that I’ve never tried before in 10 years’ time, that means I’m going to have to be bad at now and for the next few years at least. Accepting and embracing that being bad is a necessary first step to being good at something has opened up a world of possibilities of things I’m excited to try.

I can’t wait to see what I’m bad at next.

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By michael