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To learn and live better, embrace being bad

My fellow coach, Ian Lopez, has contributed this fantastic post -- check him out at

As adults, we have the freedom to gravitate to the things we like. Often, especially when we get away from passive pastimes into jobs or hobbies we participate in actively, what we like overlaps heavily with what we’re good at. Sure, it’s nice to be good at something, but what about those hobbies we’ve dreamed of trying or that job we said we’d go for next time there was an opening? Or even simpler, what about that mic at a karaoke night or that dance floor at a wedding? Most likely, if we don’t already think we’ll be good at it, we’re not even going to try.

What are we afraid of… and how’d we get this way?

Simply put, we’re afraid that others will judge us, and we know for certain that we’ll judge ourselves. But what are those judgments about, and why are we so convinced they will be negative?

What the judgments are about turns out to be a layered question. I’d propose thinking about it along 2 axes: who’s judging (me or others), and what’s being judged (skill/ability or identity). I’ve arranged these considerations in a table below with the key question for each judgment area.

We’ll start with the first column, Skill / Ability, and come back to the thornier topic of identity a bit later.

Humans are meaning-making machines. We make sense out of the world around us by fitting what we observe into neat stories that we can remember easily. And if you’re anything like me, you were probably told sometime in adolescence (or earlier!) to start focusing on the things you were good at. School? Take more classes in the subjects you score highest in. Athletics? Keep playing what you’re best at, and if you’re not good, leave it to the kids who are. Arts? Same thing. And so on for the litany of choices that students and young adults make throughout their teens and into adulthood.

You can imagine (or remember) how going through these decision cycles might create a story for people who experience them. Something like: “if you’re not good at it, it’s not worth doing,” or perhaps “if you’re going to do it, be the best at it.” And yes, there’s something useful embedded in this story: we narrow the field so we aren’t overwhelmed and can make decisions more easily. This approach can be very useful to identify a career interest or to lay the groundwork for lifelong hobbies.

However, as we carry that potent story with us, we assume that others like us subscribe to it as well, even as we settle into a career and our activities become more limited. Thus, social creatures that we are, we continue to expect to be judged according to this pigeon-holing maxim. It’s not even others’ actual thoughts that impact us negatively; it’s our fear of their potential thoughts.

How do I get over this fear of being bad?

There’s some good news, especially with regard to being judged by others. Turns out, other people are not nearly as concerned with us as we think they are. Try a role reversal: when was the last time you remember being so appalled at someone’s poor performance at an activity that it affected your judgment of them? Do you remember any details about what they did?

Did you come up with even one example? Most people would not get past 1-2 occasions that fall into this bucket. And among those, how often do you think of that person in that negative context? I’d bet not often at all. Similarly, other folks just don’t care all that much about what you’re up to, even if you’re awful at it.

Okay, so maybe they won’t remember, but you still don’t want to be bad at your new thing. A new job or activity can be a great opportunity to start small and set low expectations to build habits and confidence. A non-swimmer aiming to be Katie Ledecky immediately is always going to be disappointed, but a non-swimmer can certainly just be in the water for 20 minutes every other day, getting comfortable with the strokes, eventually working up to 1-2 laps at a time. It can help to think of yourself as a child trying something out for the first time. Would you encourage that child to stick with it for more than one session? Try to hold yourself to a similar standard.

Finally, you’ve probably tried something completely new more recently and more often than you imagine. Have you ever asked someone out on a date? Had kids? Gotten a job at a new company? Tried a new restaurant? Gone a new way home? We take chances every day, usually small, but almost always at least one. You can afford to take a chance on something you’re excited about!

What about identity?

Similar to ability, with identity, we build up stories about who we are and what we can and cannot do. If you have never played an instrument, you’re not likely to think of yourself as a musician! What’s more, we build identity moats around certain activities or jobs as well, often along age, gender, racial, or socioeconomic lines. Can a young black man take up crocheting? Can a wealthy middle-aged white woman rap? Can a first-generation low-income Mexican immigrant become a Fortune 500 CEO?

Even if you don’t need to deal with any identity moats, trying on a new identity can take a lot of work. Part of that work might be crossing a skill or ability threshold that helps you to be proud of your new hobby or role – maybe you get a good review or finally nail the guitar solo you’ve been practicing.

Still, you might remain unconvinced. A few things to try that can help you get comfortable with a new identity (using “guitarist” as an example):

· Hear it from yourself – say out loud (even better if it’s to someone else) that you are a guitarist working on improving your craft

· Hear it from others – especially if you practice with others, ask them if they consider you a guitarist… you might be surprised that they already do!

· Positive visualization – think about how accomplished you’ll be if you continue for 1, 3, or 5 more years… is that person a guitarist?

· Addition, not replacement – adding “guitarist” to your identity does not mean you need to let something go… you are still you!

If you do have to deal with an identity moat, you might worry that you’re appropriating another group’s culture or in some way dishonoring the primary group associated with your activity. If you know folks in your community who fall into that majority group and share your practice, I’d encourage you to simply ask whether and how you can appropriately partake in their practices. Chances are, they’ll be delighted to have you join.

Feeling stuck or have more questions? I’m happy to discuss further. Feel free to book a free sample session to explore ways to rethink your approach.

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