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Friday, September 24, 2010

Being Terrible is Not All Bad

If tomorrow you were given the chance to be great at every single skill in your life — we are talking world-class level, in each of your various interests — would you do it?

For many of us, the answer comes easily: Yes. Being number one at everything is considered Life’s Big Goal. Accordingly, we spend a lot of our time fervently traveling toward the promised land — shoring up weaknesses, honing strengths, targeting where to excel.

But this way of thinking misses out on a potentially important point: that there are some real advantages to being terrible.  There’s an underrated beauty in clumsiness. 

At this point we would like to introduce the piece de resistance of bad, the great pyramid of terribleness: the golf swing of former NBA basketball star, Mr. Charles Barkley (see below). It is not just bad. It is an Everest of ineptitude.

Historically speaking, there are two ways of looking at being bad:

1) It’s bad. It’s to be ignored, avoided, and spoken of as little as possible.
2) It’s secretly kind of good, because it teaches important lessons we can’t learn anywhere else.

In this second way of thinking, being bad contains a potential silver lining: character development, teaching the invaluable skill of resilience. We see this all the time, not just in the work of psychologists like Albert Bandura, but also in the biographies of luminaries like Beethoven, Churchill, Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Harry Truman, and John Grisham — all of whom endured excruciating stretches of ineptitude before they got good.

What’s more, we can take this idea even farther.  Because the advantages of being terrible go well beyond the necessary benefits of resilience and character. Being terrible can be useful because:

  • It gives us freedom to experiment. Maintaining greatness is a narrow pursuit — you are essentially playing defense, vigilantly guarding against erosion. Being terrible, on the other hand, is a license to try new things. It permits a looseness and a creativity, since there is very little to lose.
  • It connects us to other people. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the way people treat the ever-smiling Barkley and the ever-grim Tiger Woods.  People admire greatness. But they relate to Barkley’s awfulness because we’ve all been there.
  • It lets us practice the vastly underrated skill of knowing when to quit. In this overprogrammed world, it’s all too easy (especially for parents and kids) to say yes to tennis, music, golf, theatre, everything. But to get really good at anything, you can’t say yes to everything. Knowing when and how to quit is not just handy — it’s a survival skill.
  • It keeps us humble and grounded. Lives built on the relentless pursuit of perfection tend to be relentlessly narrow. Witness some of the indefensible behaviour we’ve seen lately from perfectionists in the City, Whitehall and in the sports arena.  Being terrible is a reminder that we’re like everybody else — vulnerable, human, prone to error. It tilts us toward a learning mindset.


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