The Case For Being Bad At Things
Am I Bad At This?
All my life, I’ve avoided doing things I even remotely suspect I am not good at. I’ve dropped habits I like when I feel like I’m not doing them well, and I keep doing things I don’t love because I am, technically, successful.
As a shy person, being “good” at things allowed me a way to connect to others—and to get the attention that my quiet self craved. It was a way to draw positive attention to myself, instead of exposing my insecurities about how I looked, what I was interested in, or how I spoke (not a highly confident public speaker over here). Consequently, many of my greatest successes came from doing things I was using as a mask for insecurity, anxiety, and loneliness.
Then I began to wrap up my identity in what I was good at, rather than who I was. Now, as I work to untangle my identity from my skills, I’m shedding many years’ worth of misguided ideas I’ve held about myself.
Flip that on its head, and we arrive at the things we’re “bad” at. Shouldn’t we remove the same self-judgment when it comes to our “shortcomings” as well? If we’re not defined by what we’re “good” at, then we’re certainly not defined by what we’re “bad” at.
It’s time to go out into the world with wild abandon and try the things we’re bad at—the singing, the drawing, the public speaking. If you’re still not convinced, or your mind is running a mile a minute with excuses, read on for the assurances I’ve had on repeat through this process.
You don’t need external validation.
There are a lot of things I’m bad at right now: managing my finances, cleaning my apartment, feeding myself breakfast. None of these things bother me terribly, because they’re not outward-facing. I don’t have to worry about what others think—and that’s where the first problem lies.
We’re constrained by the constant (and false) reminder that we are beholden to what others think of us. We’re convinced that likes and followers on Instagram are social currency, so we carefully curate what we share so that others have the right idea about us. But it’s only by peeling back those layers of perception and expectations that we can really get to the fleshy heart of our true selves.
So ditch them—strip away the standards that you believe others have for you and step loudly into your discomfort zone. Share an absurd story on your social channels, post a picture of your latest painting, sing a song you wrote. Do these things not because you are “good” at them and want recognition, do them because you want to do them.
Especially as adults, returning to the beginner’s mindset of our youth can be uncomfortable territory. But being bad—like, really bad—at something isn’t a luxury reserved for the very young. You have access to it at any age, despite what others may think or say.
You don’t need to commodify your curiosity.
I’m guilty of trying to turn every interest, every whim, every single action I take as an opportunity to “make something of myself”. I played music in high school, so I explored how to be a professional songwriter (it didn’t stick). I know how to crochet, so I explored how to sell on Etsy (it didn’t stick). I like making coffee, so I explored how to start a coffee shop (it didn’t stick).
What I’m saying is, I follow my whims for such a short span of time before I start trying to commodify my curiosity. This is the ultimate death knell for my creative work. It grounds any hope I had for authenticity, because I’ve already woven in the heaviness of expectation before the idea even has wings to fly.
Trying something you think you’re “bad” at doesn’t need to have any end result other than enjoyment. The only thing that matters is that we indulge in the things that make us feel lovely (and that bring no harm to ourselves or others, obviously). Because the world needs a lot less “greatness” and a lot more pleasure.
Seeking enjoyment for the sake of itself, aiming for pleasure as the endgame, is in fact one of the sweetest joys of being human. And pleasure, true pleasure that does not involve the harm or detriment of another, is rare in today’s world of productivity and busyness.
You don’t need to get better.
I recently had the absolute gift of seeing some of my poetry from high school. It was, objectively, not great. But as I read through it, tears sprang to my eyes: it was me. What I thought, what I felt, how the world seemed to me at seventeen, it was all there. The courage of my “bad” words reminded me how I believed I had arrived into my writing fully. At seventeen, I wasn’t focused on getting better, I was just focused on expressing myself.
Although I have a more polished vocabulary these days, I still feel so many of the same things, carry the same burdens, confront those same fears. But I crave that lost feeling of invincibility, writing without worry of not being fully arrived yet.
So when you’re starting out on your first bad sculpture or your first bad batch of cookies, know this: you don’t ever have to get better. You don’t have to eventually be good at something in order to derive value from it.
The urgency of constant self-improvement is a lie. We don’t have to always get better, we don’t always have to become the best. Each day doesn’t have to build upon the day before it in a productive, meaningful way. Life’s not so linear. Sometimes it’s okay to stay exactly where you’re at, for a short while or a long while, if it means your soul is getting the nourishment it needs.
Let yourself live in the space of “badness” because that’s where we uncover self mastery—the capacity to be okay right where we’re at, without expectation of results. And in a world where results and perfection are consistently messaged to us, I think that’s a pretty great space to be in.
You only need to try something.
There is no step-by-step guide to being bad at things. There’s only this: try something. Maybe you’ll be good at it—or maybe you won’t, and that’s okay.
If you’re not sure where to start, look for where you’re saying “I can’t” or “I’m not”—I know from personal experience that those are spaces I’m avoiding out of fear, not disinterest. And those are the spaces that I want to learn to lean into (I’m coming for you, public speaking).
The case for being bad at things is the same as the case for having bad days: it happens. And the more you force yourself against the ebb and flow of your whims, the more you’ll feel the tension and anxiety of it all reverberating through you.
Set yourself right on what it is that you find worthwhile, and be honest: everything you do, are you doing it in service of someone else’s expectations? Are you doing it because it must be useful? Are you doing it only because you must become the best? Let’s loosen up a bit.
I’m not asking you to abandon your skills in favor of doing only those things that you’re terrible at. What I do ask of you is that you face, boldly, the fears of inadequacy that lie in front of you. And that you move beyond them with courage.
Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio. Say hi on Instagram!