Clumsy is Good


When someone tries a new skill for the first time, we instinctively see the first few minutes as hugely important. We eagle-eye the first tries for promising signs — a natural grace, a knack. We immediately start sorting people into categories: those who have it, and those who don’t.

With that in mind, here is former world #1 player Dinara Safina, when she was three (watch her adorable wipeout at the 15-second mark).

Here is the first web page Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg built, when he was fifteen.


And here is a time lapse of a new skier’s progression through his first two years, as filmed by his dad, who happens to be a reader of this blog.

The pattern is always the same, because our instincts are dead wrong. Early clumsiness is not a verdict: it’s an essential ingredient.  Because the key to developing talent isn’t “identifying” it; it’s creating safe spaces where this kind of happy clumsiness can be nurtured, with time and repetition, into grace and skill.

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9 Responses to “Clumsy is Good”

  1. Dan:

    Love this post, especially this sentence (which I just tweeted): “The pattern is always the same, because our instincts are dead wrong.”

    What comes to mind is all the human effort spent on trying to “identify” talent in New York (where I live). As early as PRESCHOOL, there are professional “identifiers” whose full-time job is to try to discern, for purposes of admissions (at or around age 3), who the best and the brightest kids are.

    These people take themselves very seriously, and they’re revered by the parents who’ve applied their kids to the schools. It’s an ongoing phenomenon that continues on through and including high school and beyond.

    How good it would be if some of these people would happen upon this post.

    Well done, Dan (as always)!

  2. Andrew Webber says:

    I like the last point: talent id ‘gangs’ are roaming the country here, disguised as scientists. Problem is they never really define what they’re up to, but I doubt it’s helping to create safe spaces.

  3. Cameron says:

    More important at the 15-second mark . . .
    Getting up and doing it again!

  4. Robnonstop says:

    Sometimes it’s hard to believe how widespread and persistent the idea of obvious innate talent is. The majority of people seem absolutely convinced that you need to have it—and they don’t. Examples of top performers who performed lower than average are pushed aside to avoid the worst imaginable self image: Being lazy.

    This absurd idea of self confidence being the most important thing in life, infested our school systems to turn everyone into an accomplice. You are now morally obliged to assure others that there is nothing they could do to improve, in order to protect them.

    Overweight? Genetically predisposed. Bad at differentiating notes? Bad hearing, oh well no talent.

  5. Daniel,
    As usual, this post resonates so much with many of my current coaching experiences. It seems that, barring any interference from over zealous adults, children are so much more willing to embrace the early ‘clumsiness’. The examples you used in the post are wonderful demonstrations of that. I get to see it everyday coaching young golfers.

    In my experience, it’s the adults who too often perceive early failures as unacceptable. In teaching golf to a beginner adult, mindsets are fixed and expectations are so outrageously short-sighted. Quick fixes are preferred over deep, rich learning environments where there is room for ‘clumsiness’. Thanks for the post, it inspires to persist in the effort to embrace failure as an essential step of learning for all students.

  6. Adrian moll says:

    Agree and have experienced much in this post and feedback section as a Tennis coach for 20 yrs..I have always found it interesting when ones child is starting out in “early clumsiness stage” how parents smile and encourage more failure and effort whereas when the child starts percieved achieving the seriousness and scouling and permission for clumsiness can disappear .. Forgetting how one improved so much in the first place ! I went to visit the Tennis hotbed in Spartac Moscow… To “smell” it first hand ! One snap shot sticks in my memory … When the kids started playing points, the coach literally laid down on the bench and virtually ignored all action giving the kids the freedom to play and stumble by themselves ! I feel too often players are playing in a gold fish bowl scared too miss…

  7. What is also notable about the Dinara clip is that the voice over (her mother?) is already talking about “Roland Garros” (The French Open)which she did eventually win about 20 years later…

  8. djcoyle says:

    Fantastic! I hadn’t noticed that — and while it’s unclear who took the video or who’s speaking, I can tell you that her mother was definitely her coach.

  9. […] crap. On this subject, there’s a nice post about clumsiness on Daniel’s blog – Clumsy is Good – in which he […]

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