How to Get Better at Being Bad at Things

I'm pretty good at being bad on my moto.

I’m pretty good at being bad on my moto.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post called “Why You Should Do the Things You’re Bad At,” the general idea being that if you don’t tackle the tasks or activities that lie outside your comfort zone, you won’t ever really know what you’re capable of. That post was pretty well received and it was also one that has stuck with me over the past 18 months. I often find myself recycling my own advice back to myself, which is sometimes really helpful and other times really annoying (like, why can’t I freaking listen to my own blog posts, how lame am I, blah blah blah). I’ve had a pretty steep learning curve over the past year, both with mountain biking and, ya know, adulting, and I’ve found myself often struggling to remember that a) it’s good if it’s hard and b) if you’re bad at this, it just means there’s room for improvement. I have realized recently, that while it hasn’t exactly been the easiest process, I have gotten a lot (A LOT) better at being bad at things.

I know this sounds silly, but it’s my personal opinion that being bad at things in a graceful, helpful way is a very important skill that not nearly enough people have devoted time to mastering.

(Note: if this concept sounds totally ridiculous to you, you’re probably just used to hearing it phrased “stray outside your comfort zone” or “try new things with an open mind” which are basically euphemisms for being bad at something. And I’m not a huge fan of euphemisms, so here we are.)

Here are few tips for getting better at being bad at things. These are the mental thought processes that have helped me tackle new skills on the bike, learn to ride a dirt bike and, last week, attempt skiing again for the first time in four years (and have a freaking blast, despite getting stuck in snow drifts about eight times).

1. Assess realistically why you are bad at the thing. Usually, we’re bad at things because we don’t do them. Read that sentence again, because, honestly, it’s a revelation that has changed my life, and I don’t say that lightly. Those of us who specialize seriously in one sport (or one job or one subject or whatever) get used to being good at what we do, so when we try something new, we panic and think “HELP I’M A TALENTLESS FREAK.” Or at least I do, and I speculate that I’m not alone. If you do feel like you’re bad at something that you’ve been doing for awhile, one of two things is probably happening. Either you have unrealistic expectations and a skewed perception of how long getting good at something takes (like how I feel like I should be a pro skier because I’ve spent nearly 15 whole DAYS on skis over the past 18 years) or you need to do the thing differently to progress in the direction you want to (like how I thought I should be faster on the bike than I was, even though all of my fitness was geared towards long, slow days on the bike, versus the short power fitness needed for an enduro race). The point is this: Stop panicking. You aren’t flawed, you aren’t a freak, talent is a giant conspiracy, and sometimes all that’s necessary is approaching the problem from a different angle.

2. Try to stop worrying about looking dumb. I say try, because I know this is really, really, really hard, and I hate it when blogs give advice like “just be yourself” or “stop caring what others think of you” because it’s like, sure, I’ll just grow an entirely new personality by tomorrow THANKS FOR THE TIP, ASSHOLE. But if you’re going to embrace being bad at things, you’re going to look silly or inept or downright stupid at one point or another and it’s best to have some coping mechanisms. Since I’m the kind of person who cares way, way, way too much about making a good impression, I try to remind myself that people will be just as impressed if I finish struggling through the task with a smile and a good attitude, as they would be if I breezed through it no problem. And it’s so, so true. I know that when I ride mountain bikes with beginners who tackle every obstacle with a grin and who laugh when they crash — I’m impressed. And when I ride with pro men who throw tantrums and chuck their bikes because they cased a jump — um, not impressed. The truth is everyone understands how hard it is to be really, really bad at something (whether they admit it or not), so they’ll be impressed if you’re approaching the situation with a smile. This tactic works really well for me because, realistically, I’m still going to worry about what people think about me, so I might as well worry about something I can control. If you’re thinking “this sucks, I hate my bike and myself and everything, but dammit, I have to pretend like I have a good attitude so people will think I’m cool,” well, it’s a step in the right direction. And, here’s a secret — pretending you have a good attitude is usually really all it takes to ACTUALLY HAVE A GOOD ATTITUDE.

3. Focus on where you are, not where you think you should be. Because here’s the fun thing about doing things you’re bad at — sometimes the progress is actually really fast, once you get over that first hump of, you know, hating yourself and the world. Because when you haven’t done something very much, and you start doing it — you will be amazed. And if you pay attention to YOUR progress, instead of how good the people around you are, you’ll be invigorated and you’ll keep doing it and you’ll get better and better. It’s a fun feeling to realize you’ve doubled/quadrupled/quintupled the time you’ve spent doing something. If you focus on this, you’ll have fun. If you dwell on the level you think you should be achieving, you won’t. It’s pretty much that simple.

4. And lastly, the obvious needs stating — don’t give up. Even if it sucks. Even if you feel like you’re going no where. A few times in the past year I’ve really felt like I was bashing my head against a brick wall, trying to learn a new skill. I was just doing the same thing over and over and over again, and it felt hopeless. And then, suddenly, wham, I would get it. Out of nowhere, something in the synapses of my brain would click and I would be able to do the thing. I don’t know the scientific reason for this, but I know it happens, so, whatever you’re doing, no matter how much it sucks….just keep swimming.

Syd Schulz

Pro mountain biker.

Average human.

I write about bikes and life and trying to get better at both.

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9 thoughts on “How to Get Better at Being Bad at Things

  1. Yep – you just have to suck it up and *be* bad. Wallow in being bad. Eventually you’ll still think you’re bad and other people will be all “wow – you’re really good at this.”

    I bet you’re talking about physical skills, but in my mid 20s I went from having never heard actual Swedish spoken to a degree of fluency that freaked people out. Despite that I felt I was stumbling. But *man* did it suck in the beginning, for me and my co-workers. I wouldn’t let them speak English to me so they had to struggle and teach me. At the end of 3 years I had to show my passport to convince people I wasn’t a native Swede. At which point I still felt like I was bad at their language – not because I *was* but because I’m better in my native language and I was striving for that.

    Anyway … *be* bad at whatever you want to do. You’ll never really believe you’re not bad, but you’ll get a lot better. :)

    • 100% applies to non-physical skills. Currently I’m working on my web design chops and I’ve so far managed to crash this site with misplaced punctuation about 30 times, haha. Language learning is an especially good example, because you definitely have to be open to making lots and lots of mistakes.

      • Good point – you did mention the website building. The worst thing with learning language, something everyone around you just “does” is that you have to start out talking like a child, except you’re trying to *be* an adult.

  2. Awesome write-up Syd! I need to work on #4 more myself :)

    I’m stoked you and Macky are dirt biking!!! Hoping we can all ride together sometime. Jimmy and I are still beg/intermediate but we’re having a blast with it all. Braaaaaapp!!

  3. Being a super motivated but terribly insecure girl myself with a slow learning curve, your blog is so inspiring! I am 36 love this sport to tears and learned to jump and hit a berm right just a few weeks ago :) Keep writing Syd

  4. Pingback: This is Why Having a Growth Mindset Matters - Syd Schulz

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