On the importance of doing things we are bad at

Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Amelia Goss

“…. if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.”

– Neil Gaiman

The start of a New Year often brings a new slate of projects, ideas, goals and hopes for our careers and creative projects.

But even as we make a dent into January, we can begin to let things slide from our to do list.

For most abandoned goals or resolutions, it’s convenient to blame our own lack of willpower or self-control, but in the case of goals or wishes relating to our own creativity, it could be more to do with the fact that we are afraid of being a beginner.

It's not because we don’t have the time or resources, but because we don’t have the tools or reassurance to embrace being bad at something. 

Being a beginner often means being imperfect and making many mistakes. While this can be daunting, it’s an important part of exploring your potential as an artist, or even changing career direction.

As Neil Gaiman put it in his 2011 New Year wish, “I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.”

It’s not because we don’t have the time or resources, but because we don’t have the tools or reassurance to embrace being bad at something. 

Here are the many benefits to being imperfect and making mistakes, and how to get the most out of being bad at something. 

1. Learn to overcome perfectionism

How many times have you stepped back from a project, or the pursuit of an idea or new opportunity because the leap between where you are and the skills you have, and where you want to be is too great?

It’s a confronting gap, especially for those with perfectionist tendencies. Even for those of us who don’t identify as perfectionists, the fear of imperfection can still stand in our way.

As Tim Wu explored in the article 'Praise of Mediocrity' for The New York Times, there’s a deeper reason why people put off personal projects, or don’t have hobbies: the fear of being bad. 

”We are intimidated by the expectation – itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age – that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time… 'If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolours and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following.”

When we link our identity to each new idea, project, or step in our careers, it becomes difficult to experiment and explore.  

Our expectations get in our way – we leap ahead in our minds to the bit where we are competent and even perfect professionals, and skip over the bit where we are bad, amateur, flailing and imperfect.

The thing about pursuing perfect is that we are chasing a shadow – we will never quite get there and in the meantime we turn what could be a joyful, self-exploratory experience into a battle with ourselves.

I interviewed New York based writer Ashley C. Ford, who shared her own experience with fear of imperfection. “I think I spent a lot of my life wanting to jump over progression straight into perfection,” she said.

Setting ourselves up with impossible standards can have a distressing impact on us, explained Ford.

“I didn't want to have to go through the part where you only get incrementally better and it was crushing my self-esteem and really messing with my self-confidence, too. I just got to a point where I was like, why be your own bully?”

Why be your own bully when you can view being imperfect as part of the process? After all, something is better done, than unattempted and perfect.

2. Confidence grows through experience

When looking at someone from the outside-in or when they have already made progress in their career or project, we don’t see the mistakes, failures, and learning curve. We don’t see them as bad – we see them as confident.

We can make the mistake of thinking that confidence and ability is something individuals are born with, but for the most part, the only way to secure confidence ourselves is to have experience.

Working on large-scale murals, street artist Rone admitted the fear of making a mistake – a really big, nine-storey mistake in the middle of the city – came with a lot of mental pressure. The solution was to start small and be open to iteration.

“My approach was to start with smaller works, so I could remind myself that if it all goes wrong, I can just paint over it. As I became more confident, the works got bigger. Now when I do something that is irreversible, I know my limits so I can pull it off,” said Rone.

Success is just a set of well-curated failures; a collection of smaller moments that we paint over and learn from, again and again, until the fear of being bad at something is replaced with confidence.

3. Opportunities breed more opportunities

What can prevent us from starting new projects or making a career move is holding on to old projects or work that are past their expiration date.

But often when we do quit something that is no longer serving us, we create room for something new.

The work of social psychologist Carol Dweck proves the adage true that when one door closes, another opens.

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Dweck explained the difference between having a fixed mindset about our character, intelligence, and creative ability, and a growth mindset.

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

On the other hand, the growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort. As Dweck explained, “A belief that, while people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

A growth mindset is about acknowledging that our potential is limitless and embracing that. When we cultivate a growth mindset, not only do we see more possibility in ourselves, but we also see the possibilities of the world around us. We stop thinking of something as the last, and look forward to the next.

4. Learn to embrace uncertainty

Being a beginner and being bad at something means you have to step right into uncertainty – you don’t know how something will turn out, and you don’t know when or if you will ever pull it off.

Much of mastering the art of being a beginner is mastering uncertainty, and learning to tap into a freedom and flow. Iconic Australian fashion designer and artist Jenny Kee has an approach to flipping the fear of uncertainty into excitement.

'When starting a new project, the mystery is probably the most exciting thing of all. The work takes its own mind, its own form, and that's what I think is so great about feeling free – if I’m feeling free inwardly then hopefully that's going to translate into my work.'

'Other people can be destroyed by that uncertainty, but you can find that meditative flow and let it just happen.'

We begin to trust ourselves and that there will be something, just around the corner – and that maybe it will be something great.

'There are always surprises in your life and for me, the highlight is always coming. What is it going to be? That's the mystery of life,' concluded Kee.

This article was originally published as part of my monthly column on ArtsHub

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Madeleine Dore