On Doing Things Badly

I recently read this essay in The Atlantic on procrastination, fixed vs growth mindset, imposter syndrome, etc. (Via a tweet from Kristina Halvorson.) Some of it was very good, but towards the end it veered off into complaining about millenials. Even without the unnecessary youth-bashing, it felt like an unsatisfactory ending, maybe because it didn’t speak at all to what actually makes any of that better. There’s this other Atlantic article, but it’s more about getting oneself to Do A Thing right now. I’m more interested in the bigger picture mindset issues: “Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.”

It’s possible I’ve written about being a kid who was in gifted & talented programs. I’ve definitely written about my life with math, and about Imposter Syndrome (although in the particular context of introversion and conferences). Put simply, I’m very much that person she was writing about.

Something that I think has helped me a great deal is doing things that I’m terrible at, or have convinced myself that I’m terrible at. These things fall into two general categories.

Some activities I’m pretty bad at and enjoy anyway, and I don’t worry too much about getting better: billiards, bowling, street fighter-type video games. All of which, I notice, are social activities, somewhat physical but not too physical, and very dependent on eye-hand coordination. (I’ve had issues with eye-hand coordination all my life.) So if I just relax and have a good time, then I have a good time, even if I’m NEVER going to win. Yeah, it sounds tautological, but for someone who’s care about doing Well and being Right, just Doing and Being is a nice change of pace.

On the other hand, in the last couple of years I’ve taken up two activities, explicitly telling myself that I was going to suck and that it was OK to suck as long as I kept trying. Turns out, both of them are things I’ve come to really enjoy: knitting and drawing. I even enjoy the process of learning and being kinda crappy sometimes. Drawing’s been a particular surprise, since as long as I can remember, I’ve been a person who Doesn’t Draw. I’m still not “good” but some of my drawings I’m happy with, and looking back even over the last few months I can see that I’m getting better.

So if I were to say anything to my fellow “gifted children,” those of us who’ve spent too much of our lives fretting and procrastinating, it’s this: do things you’re bad at. Expect to be bad at them. Enjoy your stick figures or awkward sentences, your crooked coffeetables or clunky code. Be in that moment of terribleness, then find the little bit that isn’t a total disaster, see what worked about it, and keep on going. Because doing even when it’s awful is where it’s at.

Postscript: so Mom knew this about me way way way before I did. I don’t know if it was intuition or something she read, but she insisted that I keep trying with music, which definitely didn’t come easily. And at one point, maybe when I was in college, she said that it was because it was something more challenging, and she thought that was important. Go Mom.