Embrace The Suck: Why You Should Do Things You’re Bad At

You haven’t changed much since you were about 10 years old.

In fact, you’re not much different, fundamentally, than you were at five years old. Strange though it might seem, many of the building blocks of your personality were already in place just a few years after potty training. While you’ve picked up some new skills along the way, you’re still very much the same person.

For example, stubborn kids tend to grow up to be stubborn adults.

Talk to any parent of a 30-year old long enough about raising kids, and you’ll eventually hear, “Oh, he’s been like that his whole life!” That’s the nature part.

But there’s also over the nurture aspect—over time, we learn how to manage these traits to best benefit ourselves.

As we mature, these things manifest themselves differently: in a child, stubbornness might present itself as willfulness or intractability; with a few years of development, it might be more like tenacity or determination. Regardless of changes to the presentation, however, those traits remain.

Some of this is natural—through a combination of genetics and chance development, a piece of who you are is there at the beginning. The rest of it comes from your environment and your reaction to it.

In both of these respects, your parents play a significant role (albeit in different ways), but the main determinant is you. From the time you were a child, you set yourself on a developmental course resulting in who you are today—and that has played a hand in everything from the way you react to situations to the things you like to spend your time doing.

Which brings me to my point, or at least the start of it, because we’re going to talk about the latter today: the things you like doing, and how (and why) you derive enjoyment from them.

As mentioned above, this starts in childhood. The simplest and purest example of preference is play. And in a very real way, your youthful playtime was formative for your adult perception of the world.

How Playtime Influences Perception

To give some insight, I’ll use myself as an example. While you’re likely not interested in the day-to-day thoughts, opinions, and preferences of pre-adolescent Roman (then known to friends and family as John-John), you might be surprised to know that many of them have not changed much since I was about eight years old.

Ah, the good old days. At that point in my life, I spent most of my free time looking for entertainment. I wanted to play. In that regard, most children are very similar; what differs from child to child is their game of choice.

What entertains them? What do they consider fun? What do they love to do? What do they hate? And why?

By the time I was eight, I had a pretty good handle on my preferences, at least with regard to how I wanted to spend my time.

I loved reading. I loved writing. I enjoyed football. I hated basketball. I loved short races; I hated long races. I liked astronomy. I hated soccer. I enjoyed puzzles. I absolutely abhorred math. I loved video games.

What I didn’t realize at the time, of course, is that those preferences (and the strength of each) were based almost entirely on my level of skill at each activity.

  • I loved reading because I was good at it. The same goes for writing. I’ve had a natural affinity for words for as long as I can remember.
  • I loved football because I excelled at it.
  • I hated basketball because I was terrible at it.
  • I loved short races because I was exceptionally fast. I hated long ones because I got tired out of breath. (I hated soccer for the same reason.)
  • And don’t get me started on math—while my reading assignments were gleefully completed in about 10 minutes, my math homework took me an hour and my mother had to force me to do it.

And so on and so on.

The take home is this: the better I was at something, the more I enjoyed it; the more I enjoyed it, the more I did it; the more I did it, the better I got at it; the better I got at it, the more I enjoyed it…the more I did it, the better I got at it.

All told, a fairly obvious cycle that resulted in the adult version of Roman: a man who writes for a living, performs HIIT cardio instead of marathons, detests basketball, and avoids math at all costs.

This is a phenomenon that I call a skill bias—simply, you enjoy what you’re good at, and get good at things you enjoy.

Put somewhat more scientifically: being good at something leads to rewards (feelings of accomplishment, praise, etc), and that in turn encourages you to keep performing that task, which is basically practice.

The more you practice, the better you get, and the more rewards will be heaped upon you…prompting you to continue the activity further. And so on.

In psychology, this is known as a positive feedback loop, and it’s usually the result of a skill bias.

Skill Bias is a pretty interesting thing, and we can all relate to it. But for many people, it starts a bit further back.

Why We Choose What We Choose

Given complete freedom to choose, what will a child decide is interesting or entertaining? What will they play?

This differs from child to child—contrary to me, perhaps you hated reading but loved math, for example— but one thing that we all have in common is that we like feeling successful. In fact, we need it—Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places “achievement” just below self-actualization.

The drive for accomplishment is a piece of evolutionary biology responsible for most of history: on a cultural scale, it manifests itself in monuments and cities, not to mention wars. For adults not looking to make such a huge impact on a global scale, we seek achievement markers—everything from big houses to fancy cars to college degrees.

As children, we seek this out almost exclusively through play. This is an important point. Kids are more or less in control of the things they play, and so they tend to play things that make them feel successful and give them that sense of accomplishment. In the simplest terms, as a consequence of seeking this feeling of achievement, children gravitate towards the things they’re good at.

But it goes deeper than that. There’s also Propensity Bias: you gravitate towards (and enjoy) not just things you’re good at, but things you are suited to be good at. That difference makes for an interesting analysis.

When you’re a child, being good at something is often the result of some sort of predisposition: either a mental or physical advantage. Speaking generally, if a 10-year-old is good at a given activity, it’s because he is suited to be good at it—by that point in life, natural tendencies begin to show themselves and will impact things pretty significantly.

Out of interest, Malcolm Gladwell touched on this in his book Outliers. Using the example of youth hockey players, he pointed out that the standout players usually had birthdays earlier in the year; because they had up to a full year of physical development over other kids, of this, they were more suited to being successful at the activity.

Because of this, they were given more play time—meaning the practice to develop their skills. They received more coaching, better coaching, more encouragement, and probably derived more enjoyment.

In the long run, these players have a significant leg up on their slightly younger counterparts, even after the physical disparity levels out. Not surprisingly, these athletes tend to have longer and more successful careers.

Now, that’s a pretty specific example, so let’s make it more general.

Sticking within the context of sports, I think it’s safe to say that taller kids tend to “be better” at basketball, while stockier kids tend to “be better” at something like football. More accurately, they have a physical suitability to those sports, respectively, and are more likely to achieve success.

Obviously, skill comes into play at some point—the better you are, the more likely you are to win, of course.

But how do we build skill?

Practice. And what is practice in a child’s world? More play. What encourages the child to play? The positive feeling that comes with success.

If we accept that from the outset the taller child is going to have more success at basketball, we can see that he’d be more inclined to enjoy it, play more often, and get better at it.

Our developmental narrative of aptitude and preference is no longer just the previously pictured positive feedback loop and skill bias, but also largely influenced by propensity bias.

Ten years down the road, your excellence at that task is a combination of your original physical suitability (probably still a factor), and all of the time you’ve spent practicing. But, as I alluded to earlier the desire to practice—to play—stems, in large part, from the positive feelings you get by playing. In other words, if you’re good at something when you’re young, you’ll form a generally positive association with it. You psychologically associate the feeling of being good onto the activity itself.

Let’s go back to that basketball player. Subconsciously, the very basic emotional experience of “I’m good at basketball and that makes me feel awesome” begins to change.

By virtue of positive experience, he will ultimately create an association between the activity and the feeling. He’ll likely carry that with him into his adult life and will have a positive view of basketball.

Think about that for a second: the fact that you grew a bit faster than other kids 20 years ago began to affect your life profoundly, at least in terms of your interest in all of the things related to that singular activity.

And, of course, the opposite holds true as well—associations can be negative, and lifelong.

Unsuitability And Negative Associations

If you were a tall kid and therefore naturally suited to be better at hoops than a (short) guy like me, it’s more likely you’d enjoy basketball to the extent you’d play pick-up games on the weekend and have an active fantasy account.

I, however, was not tall. I was not naturally inclined to be good at basketball. I rarely had any success, and so I had no real desire to play—basketball didn’t fulfill my achievement need, so it fell by the wayside in favor of things that made me feel good.

My lack of suitability had led to a lack of practice, which had led to a lack of skill. Compared to other kids who had played a lot more, I was awful at it. The feeling of being awful became uncomfortable and I didn’t like it. Because I didn’t like it, avoided the activity even more. The skill gap between other kids and myself got wider.

Eventually, I stopped trying altogether.

To this day, my feelings on basketball are pretty negative. I haven’t played in years, and have no desire to. I have not accepted an offer to shoot hoops since I was 12 years old. In fact, my negative association with the sport is such that I won’t even go into a sports bar during basketball season. (I’m telling you, I was really bad as a kid. And probably worse now.)

Negative associations are powerful, and people often don’t realize they have them. They’re also pretty limiting; they keep you from doing things that might benefit you because you’re convinced you don’t like them. In all likelihood, you probably just have some emotional reason compelling you to stay away from it.

And I’m here to tell you that you should try to change this, and why.

Breaking Negative Associations

During the halcyon days of my misspent youth, I was particularly fond of the idiom, “the best way to get over one woman is to get under another one.” Crass though it is, it usually worked. Similarly, I believe the best way to break negative associations to replace them with positive ones.

And I want to teach you how to do that.

Doing stuff you’re bad at isn’t just good for you; it’s essential for you. Even when you’re talking about something as simple as fitness, doing things you suck at isn’t just good for your body, it’s an avenue to personal growth.

And when it comes to negative experiences or associations, the best thing you can do, the most effective way to make the change, is to accept the pain. Accept the suck. Get comfortable with a little discomfort. Very simply, I believe you need to push through until you have a positive experience. As unpleasant as this sounds, it’s essential for personal growth.

I am of the mind trial by fire is infinitely preferable to a lifetime of avoidance.

How To Embrace Sucking

I’ve long said one of the most valuable skills you can possibly develop is to get good at being bad at stuff.

It takes a lot of internal strength to expose yourself to failure over and over, and diving into something you’re bad at is asking for exactly that exposure. If you’re not at least okay with failure, you’re very rarely going to try anything new; and when you do, you’re not likely to stick with it.

As illustrated by the first part of this article when we dislike something, we actually dislike being bad at it—and especially dislike how that makes us feel. So we avoid it.

Cultivating the resilience to this will change your life in ways you can’t imagine.

I’m as prone to this as anyone; hating being bad at things was a stumbling block for me for most of my adolescent life. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I developed a system to overcome this, a system that allowed me to learn how to be good at being bad at things.

The Proficiency Threshold: Suck with Style for 30 Days Straight

This system relies on a tool I call the proficiency threshold. This is the point at which you stop sucking bad enough to assess the activity honestly; the point at which you don’t hate the activity because you’re bad at it.

The only way to get over negative associations and potentially form positive ones is to have positive experiences, and the only way you can even attempt that is to decide, objectively, if you actually want to. To figure out if you really want to overcome the negative association, you have to evaluate things objectively.

And so, whenever I am faced with an option for a new activity, or something I know I’m bad at, I try to figure out a proficiency threshold: I predetermine an amount of time or work needed to put into a task to develop baseline proficiency. The amount is usually quantified by hours, and based on recommendations from experts.

From there, I make a firm commitment to myself to get there in a month.

Once again I’ll use myself as an example. To illustrate, I’ll use something pretty much everyone knows I suck at: yoga.

I’ve never been a yoga guy. Aspects of it appeal to me, but many of them turn me off. The ridiculousness of rich white women dropping Namaste before getting into their Range Rovers doesn’t appeal to me. The general woo-woo nature of people attempting to find their center doesn’t appeal to me. And so on.

Very clearly, I have some strange negative association not only with yoga, but also with people who practice yoga.

My goal, then, was to replace my negative association with yoga with a positive one.

However, I still sucked at yoga. Which made me not enjoy it. Which made me not want to practice. The rest, you know. And so, I decided to push through.

Which poses a problem: if you suck at it, you won’t enjoy it, which can deepen the negative association. How can you make sure you create a positive association if you’re really bad at it? How can you ever get good at it?

Even if you stripped away my negative association with yoga people, I still sucked, and I still hated yoga. It’s impossible for me to say if I actually hate yoga because I hate yoga, or I hate yoga because I suck at yoga.

After a few conversations with other people who have been in my situation, I decided that the proficiency threshold was 10 hours: if I did 10 hours of yoga practice over the course of the month, that should allow me to build up enough skill to make an objective analysis of my feeling. I reasoned that I would be good enough to decide whether I liked or hated yoga—and if I hated it, it wouldn’t be because I was bad at it.

Two things that are important to mention. First, as I said, I spoke to people who have been in my situation—muscular men who previously struggled with yoga. I wanted to have the clearest picture in terms of the amount of practice I would need; I wanted to progress in a way that made sense for me, not someone who had been practicing for a long time.

Secondly, I wanted to practice at home. While I could have gone to classes, I know myself well enough to know that being self-conscious about being so bad would just reinforce the negative association. That was about two months ago, and I’m happy to say I don’t hate yoga anymore.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t love yoga, and I’ll never be a yogi. But I don’t hate it, either. If I’m in the right mood, I can get into it; so while you probably won’t find me posting pictures of handstand practice on Instagram, you might actually see me going to a class and attempting new moves. Moreover, my back feels looser, my hammies are happy, and there’s one less thing in the world that causes me stress.

Enlightenment?

At this point, I’m sure I could drop some cliché about getting out of your comfort zone, but I’d rather give you some deeper insight.

My experience with yoga, and thinking about all of this of this has led me to a pretty profound conclusion:

We choose to ignore a lot of awesome stuff in the world.

It’s not that we don’t know things—it’s that we know them and ignore them anyway. If you don’t go out of your way to make changes and experience new things, you sit in a sort of developmental stasis. You’ll have the same opinions you had when you were five; keep building on the same skillsets you’ve been developing since you were 10.

We ignore the things around us because they don’t give us immediate pleasure, because we have to work for the. And because of that, we hold ourselves back.

For example, I know basketball isn’t a bad sport; I also know I could get reasonably proficient at it if I dedicate myself to it for a month. I’ve just always chosen to ignore it because I have some stupid childhood issue with it. Perhaps, if I had embraced the suck long ago, I’d be out shooting hoops and loving every minute of it. Who knows?

In much the same way, I’ve always known that yoga had a myriad of qualities from which I could benefit. I just chose to ignore it. Well, no longer. I’m going to keep doing yoga, and keep growing from it.

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About The Author
John Romaniello is an author, consultant, and coach who helps people and brands find their voice through writing. He's published hundreds of articles, over a dozen info products, and one New York Times bestselling book. Might wanna check out his Instagram, he's pretty easy on the eyes.