When was the last time you tried something new — making an omelet, writing a screenplay, drawing your dog?
Were the results really awful?
What did you do next?
I bet some of you wailed in (premature) despair: “I suck! I am the world’s worst cook/screenwriter/artist!” And possibly swore that was the last time you would road-test that particular patch of hell.
But I think there’s tremendous inherent value in doing something very poorly. Because, unless you’re an absolute genius (ooooh, lucky you!) you will not be amazing at pretty much anything new right out of the gate.
So, being lousy at something doesn’t mean you’re always going to be lousy. It means you’re a beginner. If you don’t indulge in the ego massage of frustration, (says the chick who once threw her fencing helmet across the salle), you’re bound to start getting better if you keep at it.
Babies fall down a lot when they start walking. It’s a new skill.
They don’t form complete lucid sentences when they begin speaking, nor do we expect them to. It’s a new skill.
When I took up fencing in my early 30s, when I moved to New York and didn’t have a job and didn’t know anyone beyond my fiance, I was pretty lousy at it for a while. Being a driven, stubborn perfectionist, (in New York, the equivalent of having a pulse), I did not take kindly to being shitty at something.
I hadn’t sucked at anything in ages.
One night, worn out and sore and deeply frustrated by my lack of progress, I went and wept in a stairwell. I never cry. I didn’t come back to class for about a month. Then, to my coach’s surprise, I did. A two-time Olympian, he knows how hard it is to get good at fencing. To get really good at anything.
I needed to get comfortable with “failure”, to dredge up the necessary humility to learn something new, and do it poorly for a while until I improved. Or gave up.
But I very rarely give up. For the next four years, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer, knocked out at nationals each year just before the final eight. I learned a great deal about myself in those years, most of it about mental blocks and anger and what a toxic waste of time it is to beat yourself up for being lousy at something.
This past weekend, I suggested to my husband, an avid golfer, we go to the driving range. He couldn’t believe his ears. My standard line is that I hate golf.
I haven’t learned a new skill in far too long, so I had him teach me as we ploughed through a large bucket of balls.
Some of my swings were so shockingly bad that I didn’t even get near the ball. I’m a highly athletic person, still, with terrific hand-eye coordination. So I cursed and sulked a bit.
Then I took a long deep breath and reminded myself that I had deliberately chosen the exercise of doing something completely new and unfamiliar.
In my work life, as a full-time freelance writer, I’m expected to be excellent all the damn time. I need the relief of being awful. To try new stuff out in privacy. To see if I can still learn, and how I’ll handle the frustrations that come with that process.
So, when I whacked that ball soaring into the air, landing a satisfying 150 yards away, I was ecstatic. Then I did it again. And again.
I was wildly inconsistent.
That’s what it means to be a beginner, a learner.
In an era of rushrushrushrushallthetime! we often don’t allow ourselves, (or our sweeties or our kids), the luxury of failure and experimentation. Of being a beginner.
High school students feel tremendous pressure to get good grades to get into the right college, where they feel tremendous pressure to choose only the classes they know will get them the high grades to get them into the right grad or professional program and into the right job and…On it goes.
We’re squeaking our lives away in a hamster wheel of perfection.
When was the last time you savored being lousy at something you’re simply new at?
Are you still willing to be a bumbling beginner?