How to Do Something You’re Really, Really Bad At

Here’s a list of stuff I’m really bad at:

  • Tap dancing
  • Video games
  • Crochet
  • Admitting when I’m wrong
  • Downward dog
  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Not burning garlic
  • Barre chords
  • Saving money

This is obviously not an exhaustive list. I’m pleased to say that there’s a tonne of other stuff that I do atrociously. But these are the things that I especially like to practise.

I used to walk through life with a constant background awareness of all the possible opportunities for failure, trying to avoid each and every one. Here’s the thing, though: my concept of what ‘failure’ meant was so messed up that I thought, if I had to try at something, I’d already failed. That’s ridiculous! It meant I avoided putting effort into anything because, deep down, I thought working at something was intrinsically bad. The first thing I ever really tried hard at was my degree – and that wasn’t through choice. Getting to university and realising I suddenly had to work made me feel like an instant failure. Eventually, I managed to figure out the minimum amount of effort I needed to put in to get a reasonably safe 2:1, and that’s how hard I tried for the next 2 and a half years, because trying harder and not getting a first would have crushed me (if any of my very encouraging tutors happen to read this, I’m so sorry – you deserved so much better).

This might not be true of every millennial, but it’s definitely not just me. When my fiance was a kid, he used to do his homework in the middle of the night, so nobody could tell he was working at something. My brother cites fear of failure as the reason he’s never learned to play an instrument or done any kind of sport. And my best friend handed in a blank piece of paper as GCSE coursework, because if the paper was blank it was still theoretically possible that whatever would have been on it, could have been perfect.

So why are so many of us so bad at being bad at stuff?  We’re always hearing about how our generation got too much praise as kids and it made us all arrogant and entitled. I hate hearing this, because it’s very, very wrong – in fact, the praise we got as kids fucked us up in an entirely different way! By the time we were kids, child psychologists had figured out that praise and positive reinforcement were the bee’s knees at getting little suckers to do stuff. Unfortunately, they hadn’t yet realised that it’s not enough to give praise like, “You’re so clever,” or “Wow! You read that so quickly!” or “I can’t believe this is your first time wrestling camels*, you’re a natural!”

If you were a kid in the 80s, 90s or 00s who was naturally good at something (anything!), you likely had a lot of sweet grown-up approval when you did things that came easily to you. At the same time, you probably saw kids who weren’t as good at ‘your’ thing get praised for their effort, or for their improvement. Say you’re a 10 year old in an orchestra with a kid named Andy (every junior orchestra had a kid named Andy, so this shouldn’t be too hard to imagine). You and Andy both play the flute. You’re a natural – you have a flautist’s mouth and nimble little fingers – while Andy has no co-ordination and the lung capacity of a newborn. Your conductor is always giving you praise, because praise is motivating for kids. To you, she says things like, “Well done for playing that perfectly,” or That was a beautiful first run through, well done!” But she can’t say those things to Andy because his playing sounds like three angry mice trapped in a bagpipe so, instead, she says things like “Well done for trying so hard” and “I can tell you’ve really been practising.” But you, Andy and your conductor all know that she’s handing out the consolation prize there.

The thing is, Andy’s a professional musician now. He’s played the flute for Beyoncé. Unless he was great at, say, football, in which case he quickly gave up music to become a disappointment in sport instead.

Because when you got that praise from your junior orchestra conductor, here’s what proto-you heard:

  • This grown-up likes me because I’m a natural
  • I am worthwhile because I can do something well without trying
  • Trying hard is for people who can’t do things well naturally

But, whether it’s when you take first grade flute, fifth grade flute or a PhD in playing-the-flute-really-well, at some point, you’re going to find stuff you can’t just do without trying. And when that happens, you won’t know how to work through your problems, and you’ll think you’ve already failed by having to try. Your self-esteem – and your confidence in other people’s good opinion of you – is rooted in never having to work hard and always getting the right answer. So you either run from anything that requires work and never reach your potential, or you work in secret, pretend you do everything effortlessly and spend your life feeling like a fraud. Or, you double down like I did, run from every challenge and still feel like a fraud simply for having glimpsed the possibility of hard work over the horizon.

But we can fix this! Luckily, in 2006, child psychologists figured out that, while praise is motivating, it only works when you’re praising the effort and not the result. My probably-favourite psychologist, Carol Dweck, explains this in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  In her research, Dweck found that kids who were praised for getting a certain result (like getting the right answers in a test) tended to think of intelligence and skill as fixed – you’re either born smart or born stupid and smart people get the right results. Therefore, if you don’t know the right answer, you’re stupid and that’s the end of it. Dweck calls this a ‘fixed mindset’ and she found it in kids as young as 4 – these tiny children told her that kids who are born smart “don’t make mistakes.” They were 4! All they should have been doing was making mistakes, but they were scared to in case that made them stupid.

On the other hand, kids who were praised for their process (i.e. putting in the effort, trying hard and improving) developed a ‘growth mindset’. These kids saw intelligence and skill as malleable – they understood that you can get better at things through working at them. And they’re right! They understand that our abilities grow when they’re challenged and so they saw challenges as positive – as opportunities to get better. That’s why Andy’s so good at the flute now – he was praised for his hard work, meaning he developed the drive and resilience to make it to the top, the lucky, talentless genius!

If you were a smart or talented kid of Generations X and Y, you probably developed a fixed mindset. And that’s not ideal because Dweck found that people with a fixed rather than a growth mindset:

  • avoid challenges rather than embrace them
  • give up easily rather than persist in the face of challenges
  • see effort as pointless at best rather than as a way to master something
  • ignore negative feedback, even when it’s useful rather than learn from it
  • feel threatened and jealous of their successful peers, rather than learning and taking inspiration from them
  • plateau early rather than continue developing

Essentially, if you feel like a disappointment to your past self, you probably have a fixed mindset.

But it’s not too late! Remember how great your brain is at changing (just like all those smug growth mindsetters think it is)? It’s very doable to change your mindset (ironically, it may be a challenge, but embracing it is great practice).

I recommend starting off by learning a bit more about what a growth mindset is. Here’s a TED talk by Carol Dweck. Take 10 minutes out of your busy day to watch it, and practise saying you can’t do things well ‘yet’.

 

After you’ve done that, find some role models. We’re fickle, impressionable creatures and we often copy people around us. I first learned how to embrace failure when I taught year 6 English to a group of kids who were struggling to keep up with the rest of the class. I was in awe of how they coped with getting things wrong, and how encouraging and pleased they were when any one of them improved. If you don’t have any wise children to hand, older adults or your more successful peers might have locked this down by now. Give them a try. Tell everyone you know that you feel like an idiot if you have to work hard and, if anyone looks at you like you’re crazy, latch onto them immediately.

Most importantly, though, you just have to practise doing things you’re bad at. Try to start with something that’s just for fun and very low stakes. Is there a hobby you always wanted to try? Get up a Youtube tutorial and suck at that thing. Then, reload the video and try again. Don’t concentrate on getting it right. Just try to do better than the first time. If you manage to improve but don’t get a kick out of it, try giving yourself a cookie. Who knows, maybe you’ll elicit a Pavlovian response. And if not, at least you’ll have had a cookie. Either way, keep trying. Look out for opportunities to fail and actually go towards them. Eventually, you’ll learn to genuinely enjoy the feeling of levelling up.

Learning to embrace failure is probably my biggest achievement. And the fact that I’ve had to work so, so hard at it only makes me more proud of getting there.

 

 

*It’s a thing

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