The value of doing something really badly

English: The picture being uploaded is a from ...
English: The picture being uploaded is a from Evergreen Golf – Driving Range located in Martinsburg, Wv (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Who isn’t?

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?

20 thoughts on “The value of doing something really badly

  1. I’m still a pretty lousy artist, mostly because I don’t have the patience to sit in front of an easel or whatever and just go over the same couple of lines time after time after time just to make it look more real. Still, art’s not something I really devote myself to, so I don’t mind if I’m no Picasso.

  2. Confidence in yourself is a big bonus when trying something new. Of course when things haven’t worked out as planned it can much more difficult to get started on something else. Confidence in the system (whatever it is – be it the rules and requirements of a sport or the application process for a job or university programme) is also a big player. If you know that it can be done then your goals are more realisable. If your confidence in the system is broken for whatever reason, that can be more difficult to overcome than a lack of confidence in yourself.

    I think most of us know this already, but it’s worth pointing out the difference. I know I’ve suffered enough from the both, but more from my own failings than from those of others. I think I’m lucky because of this.

    Oh yeah, in answer to your question, yes I’ve been trying something new recently: trying to make money from writing (see above).

    1. Good points. Thanks!

      I tend to have a lot of confidence in myself, and always have. Not sure why, but it gives me the ability (wisely or not!) to jump into stuff; right now I’m trying to see if I can create from scratch an all-woman, invitation-only conference. Have I ever done it? Nope! But others have, and successfully. So why not me? I’m reality-checking it by asking women I know if they are interested and have been struck by their immediate enthusiasm.

      I agree that if you lack confidence in the system, it’s very discouraging. I recently thought of trying for a fellowship here and, as I always do before I do that, I asked them what the odds are — 1/10 get it. Then I looked at their website and every single fellow is in their early 30s and has a full-time job. That looks deeply UNpromising! But I plan (sigh) to try again for another fellowship for the 3rd..4th? time…because it’s normal here (as likely elsewhere) that some people apply and apply and apply before they win one. It’s the nature of competition. I tend to take a few years off between app’s.

      So I balance out trying some new fun and controllable stuff — like whether or not I can hit a golf ball (i.e. low stakes) with much higher stakes efforts. As long as some of it pans out (and it always does) that gives me the confidence to go back for bigger things.

  3. You have inspired me yet again and I am going to make sure my teenage sons read this when they get in from school today. One of their chums was round at our house yesterday and I asked him how his summer had been. He says, ‘I was gutted with my exam results’. So I say, ‘oh, that’s a shame to feel like that, what went wrong for you?’. He answered, “I got 4 A’s and 4 B’s’…..
    So I have always wanted to play acoustic guitar but feel worried I will loose face in front of my sons who are both accomplished musicians (although they are always telling me I should). I know for a fact I will find it horribly difficult as my brain doesn’t like to instruct my hands to do two different things simultaneously (I am currently typing this with one hand…) but you have given me the talking too I needed. Thank you!

    1. Oooh, I like that! Hope that SF was a great trip. Email me with details? Look like we’re heading to Scotland next June and would love to meet you.

      Guitar is great. I played it in my teens and keep meaning to get back to it…you will need patience to build up (painfully) some callus on your fingers.

      Never by intimidated by others! (easy to say.) My father is insanely talented at all media of art: silver, oil, litho, silkscreen…and I love to draw and paint. He actually (gah) made fun of some of my efforts but I know objectively they’re still good, so whatever…I also made my career as a photographer and writer while he made films. I had no interest in film, (luckily!) so I could go out and make my name without being in his large shadow.

  4. Woah, sounds like talent runs in your blood but its great you are not over shadowed by your Dad.

    Fantastic news about your trip to Scotland – June is usually our best month so fingers crossed. It would be brilliant to meet up and I would love to introduce you to my family but also my friend food blogger Kellie at foodtoglow as I think you will really like her – she is a great writer. Keep me posted and if you need any local info, let me know.

    Our trip out West was wonderful. We met some great people in San Fran (at the Ferry Building in fact, one of the places you told us to go – loved it!) who have now become great friends. Longing to travel again and we’ve only been back about a month…

  5. Pingback: Surf Lessons At 52 – Because It’s Almost Never Too Late To Learn Something New | Gifts Of The Journey

  6. We are so thinking alike these days. I planned to write about my next new thing this morning only to find you leading the way. I detest golf myself, but I’m surprisingly good at sending those little balls down a straight line into near oblivion. I love to whack a bucketful as far as I can especially when I’m having a frustrating day.

    As to the learning new things part … being good at something from the beginning is such a rare occurrence for me that I’m usually not disappointed when it takes a while to pick it up, but I do tend to be impatient which can be an issue for those around me.

    1. I’m usually extremely impatient and it’s a good discipline to try something I just don’t pick up super fast. Fast enough to derive enough pleasure to keep going helps…

      So impressed with your surfing! I’ve yet to try that. 🙂

  7. pcpb

    Great post, Catlin! I loathe being bad at things, but living with a chronic illness for ten years has forced me to accept doing a lot of things “badly” (i.e. not as I would wish them to be done).

    I recently started drawing again and for the first time in 40-odd years I’m using a pen instead of pencil. It’s been strangely liberating! Somehow I relax and enjoy the process more knowing I CAN’T rub out “mistakes” than I do when I CAN erase “wrong” marks. I suppose it forces me to be less judgmental and accepting of both my efforts and the results.

    Sometimes just doing something familiar in a different way or using different tools makes it a new experience.

    1. Love this! Good for you for coming back to your old love in a new way.

      This afternoon — only in NY! — I stopped by Bryant Park (on 42d St) and found (!!) that you can play board games all day, provided free, until the end of September. I sat down with two total strangers and played a rousing few games of Bananagrams, a new-to-me game that’s a lot like Scrabble, but faster. It really stretched my brain to try something new mentally. So fun!

  8. I’m always ready to try new things and suck at them! Like you said it takes time to get good at something or at least passable. I spend a year trying to learn to juggle, not that I’m particularly uncoordinated it’s one of those things my brain just doesn’t click on. After 30 minutes a day for a year I can now juggle 3 and only 3 items and forget trying that whole passing thing.

  9. It does take strength to try something new, and take the time to really learn it. For myself, part of the lesson I needed to learn is that’s it’s ok to try something new, not be great at it, and enjoy it anyway.

    1. But that’s because (?) we live in NY, where it seems everyone is awesome all the time. It’s counter-cultural to be adequate, and enjoy that for its own sake.

      I’ve burned out too many times trying to be Really Good at something when I could just enjoy it more by being average.

  10. I also went to the driving range this weekend. It was only the 2nd time I’d been and I had to swallow back my fear of looking like an idiot especially during the many times I swung and totally missed the ball. Despite my fear, I had fun and I’ll definitely go again. I have a lot to learn and it’s evident by the blisters on my hands.

    Good reminder to enjoy every moment. Even the ones that aren’t perfect.

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