Why Being Terrible is Kind of Wonderful

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

For many of us, the answer comes easily: Yes. Being tops 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 I’d like to point out that 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. There’s virtue in sucking.

At this point I’d like to introduce the piece de resistance of bad, the great pyramid of terribleness: the golf swing of Mr. Charles Barkley (see above). It is not just bad. It is an Everest of ineptitude, a Versailles of discoordination. (Note: this video is not a fluke — it’s his real swing, as seen here and here in terrifying slow motion.)

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 I think the advantages of being terrible go well beyond the eat-your-vegetables 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, theater, 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 tone-deaf, clueless, and indefensible behavior we’ve seen lately from perfectionists on Wall Street, Washington, and in the athletic arena.  Being terrible is a reminder that we’re like everybody else — vulnerable, human, prone to error. It tilts us toward a learning mindset.

My area of terribleness is the guitar. I’ve played it for 12 years now, and I know all of 12 chords. (That’s one new chord a year, for those of you keeping score.) When it comes time to pick out a melody, I’m hopeless, if not downright Barkleyesque. But I still keep picking the darn thing up. I can’t imagine life without it. And if somebody asked me to justify why I spent time doing something I’m objectively so unskilled at,  I’d have to say that it’s because I just like it, and that’s all.


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5 Responses to “Why Being Terrible is Kind of Wonderful”

  1. Eric says:

    Love this article and website, cuts right to the heart of things.

  2. Brian says:

    Your posts, as always, are amazing. I just finished reading The Talent Code and loved every bit of it. Couldn’t put it down. I await your next book. In the meantime, don’t stop posting on this blog! Thanks.

  3. Jeremy Dean says:

    Thank you for the great post. I completely agree with the part of the post where you mention how the ability to experiment is a benefit to being terrible. Thanks again.

  4. Dale says:

    If you’re good enough in a bad style, you can beat those who are not good enough at a good style.

  5. Steve Errey says:

    Absolutely agree Daniel. There’s an expectancy out there that you have to excel at things – your job, your relationships, your friendships, your home, you life. Nonsense.

    The idea that you’re not allowed to screw up or be bad at things is one of the biggest reason why people lack the confidence to try things, and it’s only by trying things that you get to figure out what you like, whether you’re bad at it or not.

    Go after what matters to you and forget about success and failure.

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