A lot of writing about success and achievement encourages you to find your “passion” (a word that is getting extremely overused) or to set a goal, and then to single-mindedly work as hard as you can to achieve as much as possible. I’m going to propose an alternate strategy for improvement: do something you’re terrible at.
A few years ago, I read The Overachievers, a fascinating study of eight students in their final year at a US high school. These students – by their own choice, or because their parents wouldn’t let them be any other way – were usually involved in a lot of activities in addition to their schoolwork.
Something that stood out for me in the book – along with the sad stories of how over-worked and over-scheduled some of the students were – was one student’s unusual method of coping with the constant pressure to excel. She regularly participated in an activity that she was very bad at. She explained that doing that activity allowed her, for at least a few hours every week, to not have to be great all the time. And that, in turn, helped her to accomplish more in the activities that she was good at.
Another overachiever, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was a figure skater in her teens. She loved to skate, and she trained quite intensely for several years. But she realized that she did not have a future as a competitive skater. Her height and body proportions made it difficult for her to acquire more advanced skills, and she was very nervous at competitions – at one event, she fell three times in the first minute and a half of her program. Eventually she decided to quit skating and focus on studying piano, which she became very proficient at – and she also ended up getting a Ph.D., becoming provost at prestigious Stanford University, and being one of the first two female members of the Augusta National Golf Club, among many other accomplishments.
While Rice wasn’t as good at skating as she was at other activities, she speaks very eloquently about how much she learned from being a less than successful skater. In the book The Games Do Count, she says:
I was not naturally talented at skating, unlike tennis or golf, where picking up a tennis racket or a golf club felt totally natural. I had to work much harder at skating than I did at either piano or academics. But I really believe that this was important in shaping me, because it taught me to work hard at something I was not particularly good at, and that although sometimes you might have disastrous performances, you still have to get up the next day and the world still goes on.
When I think of things that I am bad at, some days skating seems to be at the top of the list for me as well. But what usually springs to mind is drawing. I have always been terrible at drawing, even though I love art and design. I have tried to improve my drawing skills, or at least to acquire some, by taking a very intensive drawing course, and by participating in figure drawing sessions with a live model. Now, at least, I can draw a box that resembles a box and not a random assortment of lines crashing into each other. And from many, many sketching sessions with the “minikin” pictured below, I can now sort of draw figures that look like actual human bodies rather than genetic experiments gone wrong.
So why is being bad at drawing good for me, and why do I persist with it?
- It’s extremely satisfying when I draw something that actually looks realistic – maybe even more satisfying than accomplishing something in an activity I’m good at.
- It helps develop my self-confidence, and my sense of adventure, to consciously choose to do something that I know I will struggle with. It also helps me to accurately judge my own capabilities – to be able to recognize the point at which I’m so frustrated that I won’t get anything accomplished, and I should stop and do something else.
- It gives me a lot of respect for the hard work, skill and technique that goes into creating a good drawing, and a much deeper appreciation for the finished product. This is especially true when I have the chance to watch much better artists in the act of drawing. Seeing how they do what they do is very enlightening and useful for me, even though I could draw from now until forever and still not be as good as they are.
- It gives me the chance to experiment, and to fail, and to learn from both experimenting and from failing.
- It helps me prioritize and focus. I won’t become a competent artist overnight, so I have to identify what part of my drawing ability sucks the most at that particular moment, and to decide what actions would be most effective to deal with that immediate challenge.
- Being reminded that I can’t be excellent at everything gives me a better perspective on the world in general.
- It’s fun to work at my own pace and to enjoy the process, no matter what it results in.
So I propose that there is real personal value in being bad at something but doing it anyway. And I also think the effectiveness of this type of self-improvement should be more widely acknowledged, instead of continuing to restrict the definition of accomplishment and achievement only to what happens when you’re doing something you’re good at.
What about you, blog readers? What are you bad at, and what do you get out of doing it? Feel free to add your perspectives in the comments section below.
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