Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

How to be good at being bad at stuff

Is it hard for you to be bad at something?

Like many overachievers I meet, if you’ve always been good at everything, you don’t know what to do with yourself when you’re bad at something.

Overachievers get stuck when they suck.

You either spiral into a frenzy of hyperactivity, or you grind to a halt. All of your usual strategies fail.

And when your sense of identity begins to collapse, this opens up the floodgates of shaming, blaming, catastrophizing hell.

If this sounds like you, I get it. I’m a recovering achievement addict and perfectionist.

“If I can’t be the best, then why even try?” used to be my mantra, too. But that is a recipe for life failure.

Over the years I’ve had to learn how to be good at being bad at things.

As a business owner and new dad, the ways I can suck at stuff multiplies each and every day.

So I consider it a matter of survival that I learn to get good at sucking.

See, being “good at stuff” is actually really straightforward.

Step 1: Figure out what others expect you to do.

Step 2: Do it better and faster than they expect you to do it.

This works great all through life until a few years into your career.

It starts breaking down when the things others want from you stop matching what you want to do.

Or when others are relying on you to figure out something they themselves can’t do or understand.

Then suddenly you are thrust into a situation with no map, no path, no instructions.

You start fumbling the ball, flailing around, hitting a wall.

Those fears you have of being fired, humiliated, homeless and desolate are no longer just abstract motivators. They start to seem completely probable.

That freaks you out even more, and it’s really, really hard to learn when you’re freaked out.

The skills you needed to be good at stuff are not the skills you need to be bad at stuff.

Here’s how I’ve learned (and am still learning) how to get good at being bad at stuff:

1. Become your own servant leader.

Servant leaders view their job as removing roadblocks and creating environments in which their people can be productive and grow. This means understanding their needs and establishing trust.

For example, ask yourself: Is my environment conducive to my work? Do I need more quiet? A less cluttered space? A larger work surface? Then give yourself those things.

Replace that draining inner critic voice with an uplifting one of a benevolent servant leader. Instead of your self-talk being, “You better get this right or else you’ll be a failure.” Try saying “It’s OK to take the time to learn how to do this well because it will pay off down the line.”

Pay attention to what your needs are. Don’t just expect yourself to magically become more effective without making any changes to your external and internal environment.

2. Keep appointments with yourself.

You would never dream of missing a client meeting, right? Then don’t miss meetings with your most important client: yourself.

If you’ve set a time to practice or work on the thing you’re trying to get better at, show up on time and ready to go. Don’t wait until you “feel like it”. Because if you’re bad at it, you’ll likely never feel like doing it.

3. Break down complex tasks into tiny, no-brainer-sized chunks.

Watch out: overcomplicating tasks is an avoidance tactic. If you overwhelm yourself, you won’t have to do the thing you hate doing — yay! Sorry, life accepts no excuses.

Use your feeling of overwhelm as an indicator that you need to break down your tasks even smaller. Break them down until you can look at the list and say “That’s easy, I can do that!”

For example, if the thing you suck at is public speaking, it can be overwhelming to think about creating a talk.

Instead, spend 5–10 minutes before every work session breaking down the task into tiny chunks.

Task: Create an outline for the talk

  1. Open a new document.
  2. Close your eyes and take 3 deep breaths while imagining your ideal audience.
  3. Write down the most important message you want to share with the audience.
  4. Write down 3–5 bullet points that support that message.
  5. Expand on each bullet point with 3–5 more bullet points.

Boom. Now you have a rough outline of your talk. Do a happy dance!

4. Talk out your struggles with other people.

No one likes a complainer, but everyone loves to give their input. Ask a second brain to help you think through your challenges. The simple act of articulating where you get stuck will create more clarity.

It might feel vulnerable to reveal your deficiencies to others. Don’t let self-judgement stop you from asking for help. Place the focus on your thought process, not on you.

Ask a friend or colleague “Can I run by my thought process by you and get your take on where I’m tripping myself up?” They’ll be happy to help.

5. Give yourself A’s for effort. Don’t grade the outcome.

As a kid, being told you got an “A for effort” basically translated to “HAHA nice try, loser.”

But there’s lots of research now showing that complimenting kids for their effort versus their outcome leads to more creative confidence, faster learning, and higher self esteem. Adults are the same way.

Acknowledge yourself for the courage and discipline it takes to grow a new skillset. Your results won’t be great at first. They might not get better for a while. And you probably don’t have control over the outcome anyway.

Don’t hinge your self worth on things you don’t have control over.

A’s for effort don’t matter on a report card, but they are the only thing that matters in the school of life.

Which would you rather excel in?

Originally published at on July 19, 2019.

I help burned out overachievers and perfectionists figure out who they are and what they really want from life.

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