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It’s OK to be terrible

Babies fall, small children can't read, teenagers can't drive and adults just don't understand Pokémon Go.


It is ok to be bad at things. You know, like really bad. Offensively bad.

We are terrible at everything the first time. And it is OK because that is how we learn.

When I was a kid, I had a Nintendo and, for about a year, played only two games. Super Mario Bros and Double Dribble. I became very good at both. At first I played them as expected and then I tried different things. I found secret areas in Bros and spots in Double Dribble where a player could hit a 3 pointer more often than not. And this only happened because I kept at it. I was crap at both the first time. But I had two games and nothing better to do than muscled my way to mastery.

Here is the modern kicker. We live in a time where anything you could possibly want to learn is a few keyboard stokes away. Type “how do I _____” into Google (Bing if you nasty) and you’re off to the races. How fast could I have gotten to great with those two games if these types of learning aids were at my disposal?

Back to being terrible at things. I’m not a psychologist but here is my 10 cent assessment.

As we get older we get used to being good at certain things,  mediocre at some and bad at others. Even the things we are bad at we KNOW we are bad at them. And we’re OK with that. So:

  • I’m great at picking up new coding languages
  • I’m OK at cooking
  • I’m crap at Scrabble

But we begin to fear being terrible. We get this feeling that we are better than that, better than failure, and we avoid the feeling. Pssstttt. That is ego getting in the way. By avoiding that discomfort, we are actively preventing ourselves from trying and learning new things.

So go out and be terrible at something. Fail and fail as quickly as possible. Then do it again. Fail. Learn. Try. 

Don’t give up so easily. Don’t believe that you can’t do something. That your brain doesn’t work that way. To hell with that.

Maybe you’ll only get good or even just passable. But it is one more tool in the box for the next thing you want to try.

I’m reading a book now by Jeff Sutherland, the creator of Scrum (title: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time).  In this book talks about three modes of learning. I’ll just call them Replicate, Improvise, Be.

Mode 1: Replication
Blindly follow the rules. Do exactly what you are told for how long you are told. Do not deviate. Repeat until it is memorized (mind, muscle, whatevs).
Ex: child leanings  to walk

Mode 2: Improvise
Using mode 1 as a base begin to improvise. Try different things and see what variations work best overall and in which best in given scenarios.
Ex: child learns to walk backwards, shuffle sideways, balance on curbs

Mode 3: Be
Just do it. The steps can be forgotten as you flow from one point to another. Step 2 in a series doesn’t really have to be second. Maybe it isn’t necessary, and you don’t think or worry about it. You just flow. Repeat 1 and 2 as needed.
Ex: child now runs and plays without thought of how one foot goes in front of another

Makes sense, right? Think about something that you are really good at. Did you learn how to do it in this format?

Think about the example child. Now that she knows how to walk and run in all scenarios, she can stack knowledge. Like blocks. Basketball involves running in about every-way imaginable. Maybe that is next.

By learning something new you broaden the spectrum of things you can now do and can learn. You become better at getting better. Neat, right?!

At the beginning of this year I failed hard at Minecraft.  No idea what I was doing.  I saw kids playing years before and thought, what’s the point of this? You’re Building what? With who? Going where? The Nether? What’d you call my mama?

Now I have a blast passing the time playing Minecraft with my son. To be honest, I’d play whether he wanted to or not. And I’ve been to the Nether. The scary, deadly Nether.

So get out there and fail at things. Terribly. I’m failing at Pokémon Go (don’t say Squirtle in public), Node, Vue, a punching bag, Collection pipelines, and cooking right now. But not for long.

What are you failing at?

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Philip Joyner

Not only can the man stare down CSS code until it writes itself in sheer terror, but he is famous around 220 E. Hall St for what we like to call his “happy dance”. Few have seen it, and those who have can’t get enough.

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