You’re not a Champion Because You’re Unwilling to Suck

I am not seduced by learning curves. I want to be good at everything–immediately. When I play golf, I should swing like Tiger Woods. When I do public speaking, I should orate like Honest Abe. When I meditate, I should focus like the Dalai Lama. It’s a phenomenon I call the “instant expert.”

Oftentimes, experience supports my delusion. For example, as someone who has never played gold, I imagine I would demonstrate exponential growth my first time out–mainly because I would go from zero skill to some.

This growth might continue for a few outings. I’d feel pretty good about myself. I’d buy a punch-card at a country club (or whatever golfers do).

Then my learning curve would start to plateau. Gains would come with great difficulty. I’d start thinking, “Golf is lame. All the resources used for maintaining a patch of land for the 1% to tread upon…I’m too disgusted to play.” The punch-card would expire and I’d return to the things I do with a semblance of competency, like flossing my teeth.

Most of us make poor skill mean we aren’t good at something. Quitting means that we have determined that we will never be good, like it’s an immutable law.

More pernicious is this: we conflate what we do with who we are. If I suck at something, it means I suck as a person. If this is true, we must find things we are good at and avoid those we are not. This is why TV and the internet are so popular: they allow us to be instant experts. I was good at watching TV almost from the first time I watched it.

Like many people, there are things I want to do beside web-surf, watch TV and floss. Of those thing, I suck at many, if not most of them. Or I am transitioning from suckiness to passable competency.

I write, but my words are often meandering and vague. I ain’t got a book deal. I am an employee, but sometimes I can be a dunce at work. I am a husband, but I can sometimes be a total dick (sorry babe). I am going to be a father, and though I’ve pre-ordered my “Dad of the Year” t-shirt, there may be a period where I am not the most expert father.

Of this situation, I think of an Ira Glass quote:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners…For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good….A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. [Full quote here].

The gap between what we know we can do and what we’re doing can be frustrating. But we’ve got to know it’s an intrinsic part of the process. There was a time when we all of us sucked at walking. Now we’ve attained some level of mastery. It’s not magic. It’s a function taking consistent action (i.e. walking).

What if sucking at something didn’t mean that we, as people, sucked? What if it just meant we lacked a particular skill-set–one we could learn? What would that make possible?

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