Owl's Roost

How to Get Better at Anything

The secret is:

Let yourself look stupid, do a shoddy job, or otherwise muck it up.

...yeah, that's not happening

The problem with learning new things is that you might be starting from zero. This introduces a lot of stress- you don't know what you're doing, but you do know that you're making mistakes. If you've had any exposure to the thing being done well before (which most people have), then you might wind up self-conscious or stuck on your flaws. This makes it a lot harder to keep doing the thing.

Perfectionists and "gifted kids" in particular find this to be a problem. Some of us grew up being innately good at something, never really struggling with it. Others were pushed to be the best of the best, suffering when they couldn't manage that. Either way, coming across something that you're not immediately good at is upsetting. It feels bad to do poorly. If you're not passable at the thing on your first try or two, then you might drop it altogether.

Does this sound familiar? If so, this article's probably for you. While it's most applicable to creative endeavours, it's useful for just about anything where wanting to do well is getting in the way of doing it at all.

How to do anything badly

Magic trick #1: perfect is impossible

Everything that's ever been done had flaws, and I mean everything. Artists can always find faults in their work, and even masterpieces could be improved on. The world's best speeches could have been made stronger. Songs could always sound better somehow. Even if someone taught a machine to do a task "perfectly", that machine would have flaws in its code and construction. Nothing in existence is perfect.

If it's impossible to do something perfectly, then it's silly to expect that of yourself. You're going to make mistakes, and that's okay. Even the Mona Lisa has brushstrokes out of place.

Magic trick #2: good is the enemy of done

Trying to make something "good" means spending a lot of time ironing out all its flaws. The problem is you could spend forever fixing little mistakes that most people won't notice. "Good" is a point you'll never reach.

If you want to finish something, then you'll need to accept that it's going to have flaws. Perfection is impossible. Don't worry about getting everything right; just get something finished and you'll have done better than most people ever will.

Magic trick #3: mistakes are good

I draw in my free time, and sometimes I show my art to people. This usually gets some comments about what they like or dislike most. The crazy thing is that half the time, people like my mistakes. That weird line I spent an hour obsessing over gets praise! It's taught me that some mistakes can improve a project.

Some mistakes really do suck, though. They might ruin whatever you were working on. That doesn't make them all bad- you've still learned something that you can use later. If you put a clay pot in the kiln without poking a hole in the bottom and it explodes, then you've learned that you need to add an air hole. Your next pot won't explode. That mistake really sucked, but it made you a better potter.

Either way, mistakes are good. If they don't make whatever you're working on better, then they'll make you better.

Magic trick #4: fail on purpose

Sometimes it's still hard to get over the initial hump of "I suck at this, so I don't want to do it." It doesn't feel great to turn out something that looks like a toddler made it. But what if you failed on purpose? Draw with your non-dominant hand. Write code with your eyes closed. Play with whatever you're doing.

When you take this approach, there's no pressure to do well. You're not trying to. You're just mucking around and seeing what happens. It takes away the shame of doing badly and lets you get something done. Even if the end result turns out horrible, it's still better than the nothing you'd have done otherwise.

It's still helping you, too. When you fail on purpose, you figure out what not to do. You'll be able to avoid those mistakes the next time you try to do well at the thing. You might also stumble across something you do want to do, which is great!

Magic trick #5: everyone sucks

We all start out as beginners. Elvis didn't know anything about music when he was born, and now he's instantly recognizable for what he made. Every artist drew something shoddy at least once that you've never heard about. Great chefs have burned dozens of dishes.

People are remembered for what they do well; all their failures and mistakes get forgotten in the long run. When you start comparing your first steps with someone else's highlight reel, remember that you're not seeing all the botched attempts along the way. They used to suck too. If they could go from terrible to great, then so can you.

Magic trick #6: people don't care

Ultimately, people don't care how bad you are at something. Half the time, they've never done the thing themselves, so they're impressed you're doing it at all. A lot of people spend years wishing they could do something because they're too afraid to start.

Even if people critique you, it's not because they're obsessed with your choice to use puke green crayon; they want to see you do well. They don't care that you made a mistake. They care about helping you get better at the thing. And if someone's being a jerk and doesn't want you to do well, then why are you listening to them?

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