Are You Willing To Be Really, Truly, Embarrassingly Bad At Something?

Note pad on wood desk with color pencils and a pen

I have a confession, dear reader: I’ve been learning how to draw.

I’m a 38 year-old woman who spends each evening making and erasing little digital lines on my iPad in the hopes that one of those lines will make me happy enough to continue.

Like countless others, I got the message around 10 or 11 years-old that I couldn’t draw. I was gifted in so many things—but not art.

I spent the next almost 3 decades avoiding anything that required an aptitude for visual art.

Music? All over it. Writing? Count me in. Art, drawing, craft, design? Consumer, enthusiast, devotee—but never creator.

But a few weeks ago, my daughter suggested that Sean download the Procreate app to his new iPad. The main thing you need to know about Procreate is that the vast majority of the cool digital illustrations you’ve seen on Instagram are created in this app.

Then, she pulled up Procreate tutorials on YouTube (of which there are thousands). And the two of them got to work. I especially like these from Art With Flo!

At first, I couldn’t even be bothered to pay attention—that’s Sean’s territory, not mine. I sat with them, working on some writing. But when they showed me their first creations, I was gobsmacked. I started to watch each step as they made shapes, added color, and filled in each design layer by layer.

And… I started to feel compelled to give it a try.

That evening, I dove in—hesitantly at first and then, with gusto.

At first, I followed the tutorials. They taught me to break down a design into shapes and layers. From there, I started to recreate doodles that I found on Pinterest. In the last week, I’ve been trying my hand at copying more involved sketches and, last night tried turning a photo into a doodle.

Visual art is, in fact, not where I am gifted. Lord have mercy, I was quite bad at it as I got started. But really, what even is “bad” when we’re talking about learning something new?

Not being innately talented that doesn’t mean that visual art is not for me. It doesn’t even mean that I don’t have a huge opportunity in learning skills in that area.

My evening drawing has become a way for me to detach from my usual habits (social media, YouTube, snacking, compulsive exercise…) and be fully present with what is right in front of my face. That, in and of itself, has immense personal value.

I can also feel how exploring digital art and drawing is starting to rewire my brain.

Instead of just thinking about how words can convey an idea, I am thinking about what visuals make sense. My metaphorical vocabulary has expanded exponentially in just a few short weeks.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve no doubt noticed this.

Earlier this week, I was listening to an interview with dialect coach Samara Bay. At the very end of the conversation, she was asked what she was currently learning. She exclaimed with glee, “I’ve been learning guitar!”

She said that it’s been liberating to give herself “permission to suck” at something.

And that really landed for me.

I’ve never been one to let myself suck at anything. If I wasn’t good at a new venture from the get-go, I wasn’t going to stick around long enough to figure out if I could get good at it. The idea that I might have to put in my dues to earn a new skill just didn’t compute.

I already struggle with questions of worthiness and enoughness, so letting myself be embarrassingly bad at a new task has always been fraught with anxiety and frustration. I couldn’t let anyone see me struggle because being “gifted” was the only way I know how to prove my worth.

Learning to run and climb a few years ago started to transform that for me. I was terrible at climbing at first. But, I stuck with it—practicing, getting stronger, learning the ins & outs of how it was done. And I got much, much better—to the point that I could be the bouldering instructor at my gym!

What I’ve figured out is that being okay with getting through the messy, awkward, and even embarrassing part at the beginning of anything is part of approaching life with a growth mindset.

For a long time, I thought I had a growth mindset because I was open to the idea that there were probably all sorts of things I didn’t know about that I would be really good at.

But that’s a fixed mindset—because I basically believed that somewhere there was a list of things I was predestined to either be good at or be bad at. The list didn’t change, I would just discover that there were things in the “good at” column that I didn’t know were there.

It wasn’t so much about learning anything new as it was going on a treasure hunt for new shiny objects others could praise me for.

To actually approach life with a growth mindset, I needed to accept that, to learn something new or improve my facility with a task, I would have to be bad at it first.

Giving myself permission to be messy and awkward in new-to-me ventures has been a revelation, and it’s opened the door to so much opportunity in really unexpected ways.

There is so much opportunity to be really, truly very bad at things in building a business because there is so much to learn.

And there is also so much opportunity to be found in letting yourself be really, truly very bad at them.

I hear all the time, “I’m bad at marketing.” Or “I’m just not good at managing people.”

It’s an excuse to not do it, right? If you’re bad at marketing, then you just don’t do it. If you’re not good at at managing, you’ll never hire help.

But avoidance only goes so far.

What would happen if you let yourself be awkward for a time? If you embraced that messiness (and even frustration) was a prerequisite to actually getting good at something?

Look, I’m all for embracing our strengths. And I’m all for leveraging the things that we’re naturally talented at.

But no one—and I mean no one—succeeds solely on their talents and strengths.

No one is born with all the necessary innate gifts to thrive on their chosen path.

Yet, so often, we operate as if this is the case.

And, no—outsourcing isn’t another way to avoid the mess.

We search for the path that is going to let us lean into our talents and avoid the things we believe we’re bad at. And each time we run into something new—something we’ve coded as “not for us”—we backtrack and look for a new path to take.

Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe this isn’t you. But even if you haven’t been as pathological about avoiding things you’re bad at as I’ve been—I’m betting you can relate on some level.

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to be really, truly, embarrassingly bad at something?

When was the last time you kept being bad at a thing until you weren’t quite as bad anymore?

Whether it was in your business, a new hobby, your relationships… my guess is that that experience unlocked some opportunity for you. At the very least, my guess is that it was satisfying (which, is itself an opportunity in what is often an unsatisfying world).

But maybe, just maybe, giving yourself permission to be awkward at that thing can lead you to something new and unexpected—an opportunity—whether personal, professional, financial, or otherwise.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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