Learning and sucking at things

You know what no one likes? Being bad at something. Of course it sucks to be bad at something in front of people, but it also really sucks when being on your own, left in a puddle of shame with your bad art or stiff moves or slimy bread.

I’ve been spending lots of time on new and old hobbies lately and thinking about the dichotomous feelings in learning something new. Take learning to shuffle dance, for example. Reaching that “aha” moment when my feet understood how to do the Running Man and T-step felt great…until I realized the actual challenge is being able to do these moves at 120+ bpm (I’m about halfway there). Back to feelings of despair. Same with my progress with weaving and watercolor—I know how to make things now, but I don’t think they’re good. Cue that Ira Glass “taste gap” quote.

Here are the levels to being skilled at something (an unscientific interpretation):

  1. You don’t know the skill, but you want to learn.

  2. You’ve learned the steps and process to do the thing from a class, teacher, friend, video tutorial, etc. You can mimic and repeat slowly by the end of this phase but still need reference material or person for guidance.

  3. You’re able to do the thing yourself without any guidance, even if it is slow and messy and mediocre.

  4. You’re able to do the thing at decent speed and quality. By the end of this phase you’re capable of teaching someone else.

  5. You’re able to do the thing “in your sleep.” Doing it feels like second nature. Maybe by this phase you are confidently sharing your art or moves or bread?

  6. You’ve mastered the thing. Folks you respect and admire who engage in this skill also respect your skills.

I’ve been stuck between phase 0 and 1 plenty of times, bookmarking tutorials that I didn’t watch or eyeing classes that I didn’t go to. For a long time I believed I didn’t have the discipline to teach myself anything difficult, so I spent money taking classes for external deadlines and homework. Paying for classes is great if you have the budget, but one downside is that it is easy to never practice a skill unless you’re cramming for a specific end result. When the class is over, are you going to keep practicing? Are you maintaining the habit?

Once the learning process begins and you get into the groove, moving to phase 2 is not too difficult. Often this is where I stop; I’ve learned the thing and that’s enough. To progress to 3, 4, and 5 requires regular habits, time, and the ability to stomach one’s own suckiness.

It’s this last part that seems like the biggest challenge. But without this mental battle and the struggle with ego, would we even be human? I don’t know the secrets to feeling okay with being bad at things. It’s very likely that I’ll be ashamed of being bad at things for the rest of my life. But it does help to pay attention and fall in love with the joy of the activity itself rather than any end goal.

Seeing my paints blend unpredictably on wet paper. Matching my feet to the bass of the music for a few seconds. Marveling at the slow rise of dough over time. The more we make room for these tiny incredible wonders, the less room the ego will have to speak.