Why It’s Good to Be Good at Being Bad at Stuff

A few weeks ago, Princeton BJJ hosted a book discussion group about The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin. In the book, Waitzkin, a chess master and Marcelo Garcia black belt, describes his love of learning and his realization that he is good at it, a realization he shares with the reader. The book systematizes the experiences many of us probably have when we try to learn something though may not have had the language to describe.

Reading the book made me want to be a better learner. Well, it made me want to want to be a better learner. I do not love learning as much as I love having learned. You know how some babies are “good sleepers” and others are colicky and fussy and wake up half a dozen times a night? The latter is how I am about learning. I want to like it, but I often whine and complain and wish it were easier. Yet, I also do truly like to get better at things. So, after the discussion, I was inspired to think of all the reasons I put myself through the process of learning, all the reasons I can think of that it is good to be good at being bad at stuff.

Hopefully this will help others too. Even if you are a jiu-jitsu black belt or an expert in some other area(s) of your life, there is always something new under the sun that could be learned, if we are so inclined. I hope you love learning, but if you are one of those people who needs encouragement to embrace your badness, here are 10 reasons to commit to being good at being bad at stuff:

Increased empathy: Putting ourselves in situations where we do not know all the answers and must work harder than usual can help us empathize with people who must work at learning things we now take for granted. We may be able to teach and execute our favorite guard pass without thinking about it anymore, but this is not the case for the person seeing it for the first time. If we as instructors are willing to work on things we find difficult, we could tap into a well of patience and support we might not otherwise realize we possess.

Perspective: Putting our egos in our pockets can be difficult, but it is rarely fatal. Though we may not seek them out, we have all been in situations where we have had to defer to others or admit a lack of knowledge. Perhaps it was not enjoyable, but chances are the outcome was neutral or better, if it resulted in the acquisition of some kind of useful knowledge or skill. The more we put ourselves in these kinds of situations, the easier they become to experience.

Less pressure to perform: As adults, we put significant pressure on ourselves to be competent and knowledgeable, both professionally and personally. Putting ourselves in situations where we know very little and can learn from those who know a lot can be very freeing, because there are no expectations on us to perform at a certain level. (Other than the ones we put on ourselves.)

Credibility: Particularly if we teach, coach, or counsel others, there is great potential for our students, athletes, or clients to distrust us if we encourage them to venture outside their comfort zones when we are not willing to do it ourselves.

Provides opportunities for others to be kind: Not everyone will, but many people who are in positions of authority or expertise will bend over backwards to support others genuinely, with no trace of superiority or smugness. They model how to create environments where people feel safe exposing their egos, and sometimes they inspire others to go forth and do the same.

Great stories: I am trying to learn Portuguese, and my attempts to interact with native speakers have resulted in a veritable treasure trove of anecdotes. For example, just recently I told a shuttle driver that I was “aroused” to be in Portugal. In case it isn’t obvious, I meant to say I was “excited” to be in Portugal. And this is a story I never would have had to share (repeatedly) if I had not been willing to be pretty much terrible at speaking this beautiful, frustrating, impossible language.

Specialized knowledge/"in" jokes: This is similar to the idea of collecting great stories, with the added benefit of helping you become part of something new and creating a connection to those people who are good at what you are bad at. When you take on a new learning opportunity, you take on new language, mindsets, priorities, and values, and you develop relationships with people who share them.

Opportunity to show a different side of yourself to others: I am still close with many friends from high school and college. Back then, I could not conceive of any of them as parents, professionals, old farts. Now, I get to see those facets of their personalities, and that, coupled with the identities they put forth when we were younger, rounds out my picture of who they are and how I know them. And bringing those elements together can be fun; for example, I always enjoy sharing with my friends’ kids sanitized versions of our favorite stories from when we were kids. The kids learn more about their parents, and their parents learn more about me as I interact with their children.

Opportunity to show a different side of yourself to yourself: Self-talk can be our best friend or our worst enemy. If we keep showing up to try to do even .0001% better the thing we cannot do, we learn more about where we are strong and where we need reinforcements. We can talk ourselves through the frustrating parts and become people we never were before. There was a time when I could not conceive of myself as someone who could run a marathon, for instance. Over time and with effort, that changed, and now I have run two of them. Being bad at running and committing to getting better at it helped me become a person I would not have been able to be if I had not been willing to be bad at this running thing at first.

If you stick with being bad long enough, eventually you become less bad: This one is pretty self-explanatory. There is nothing better than being less bad at something, unless it is being actively good at something. And the difference between bad, less bad, and actively good is time and effectively-directed effort.

Got stories of how a willingness to be bad at something paid off? Post your experiences to comments.