Do You Have to Be Bad at Something Before You Can Be Good?


When you’re learning something new, there’s often an expectation that you’ll pick it up easily. That it will be smooth sailing. That you won’t skip a beat.

After all, the world moves faster every day. The competitive landscape is more intense than ever. Time is in short supply. It’s one sprint after another to learn what you need to know. Learning curves can feel like vertical climbs.

But when in your life have you learned something new and performed it perfectly right from the start?

As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the book Outliers: The Story of Success, it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill.

The hard part is the feeling of incompetence that comes along with learning. Two things happened this week that made me think more about being bad at something new.

First was reading the work of Erika Andersen in an HBR post, which was the subject of my blog post yesterday. She wrote about how to identify the next skills you should learn.

In that was an angle on having to be bad at something before you can be good. The important thing, Andersen says, is to continue on through the bad phase so you can get to the good.

In fact, it’s the subject of her new book coming out this winter called Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future. Sign me up. The pre-ordered book will download on my Kindle app on March 8.

In a Forbes post that may have inspired the book, she gives great strategies for How to Get Good at Things By Being Bad First. One of them is managing your self talk and being deliberately encouraging in how you speak to yourself.

That brings me to the second thing that happened this week. I’ve been trying different yoga classes, looking for 2 to do consistently each week. In addition to the serenity, stretching and balance benefits, I’m training to do paddle board yoga in the spring and summer.

And I’m moving through being bad into being good. One of my yoga instructors gave me a little smile this week when I at last managed to transition into Warrior II with the correct arm in front.

And my first experience with stand up paddle boarding last fall left me with a patch of broken skin on my thumb from holding the paddle the wrong way. The skin healed, and I figured out a better way to paddle.

Something the teacher in yesterday’s yoga class said made a big impression on me. He advised us not to condemn, judge or demand. If we let go of these mindsets and expectations, we will be calmer and happier.

These could apply to others. They could also apply to ourselves. By letting go of judging ourselves and demanding perfection, we are more free to experiment and learn.

That’s what Andersen is saying too. Most everyone will be bad at something when they first start. But by having faith in your ability to persevere and learn what you need to know, you can get good.

Another great book, What To Do When You’re New by Keith Rollag gives strategies for you to perform new things in front of people who aren’t familiar to you. Focusing on learning and getting better, rather than being good right away, is a great tip.

And his HBR article on being new gives good guidance on asking questions: consider what you want and why, determine whom to ask and if the time is right, ask short to-the-point questions and express thanks.

It’s humbling to recognize what you don’t know and what you need to learn. To try to ask the right questions, even when you don’t know what you don’t know. To take a crack at doing the new task. To learn from and recover from the inevitable mistakes. To start building competence.

This is what I’m doing in my new career role in marketing. This is how I navigate new community leadership roles. And this is how I approach my exercise classes. It’s not easy, but I keep moving forward.

As I learned from my yoga teacher, don’t judge yourself or demand perfection. Be kind to yourself and let yourself experiment. You’ll achieve much more, much faster and much better than you ever thought you could.

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Caroline Leach

Hi, I'm Caroline Leach. I help people and organizations tell their stories. I'm a Marketing VP at AT&T, a former Communications VP at DIRECTV and an alum of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. This blog, How to Build Your Career through Social Media, shows you how to build your personal brand, advance your career and embrace your future. It helps you promote your employer and your network too. Opinions expressed in this blog are my own. Your comments are welcomed and encouraged. I'd love to hear from you!

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