Have the Courage To Be Terrible at Something New

Sean Kernan

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I always collapsed after my first week at a new finance job. It felt like each day was spent trying to pin down a loose firehose and drink from it. One would think a college degree and experience would make for a smooth transition.

But it rarely works like that at large companies. There are endless things to learn. You can’t do this one thing because of some weird rule. You have to save this file over here and not over there. Tiny processes stack up higher than the sky.

This is why senior personnel are paid so well. It isn’t just that they are gifted. It’s that they have persevered from junior positions and now have a deep knowledge of that sector. This embodies the mastery of a skill. It’s about having a willingness to learn, endure, and dissect the elements of your craft.

Learn from a martial arts master

Kanō Jigoro was the legendary founder of Judo. Despite being a smaller man, he could toss any of us over his shoulder with ease. He pioneered the idea of using someone’s weight against them.

In the mid 19th century, he was a young disciple who sparred with other senseis. He was thrown around and submitted by most of them. But eventually, he became unstoppable. Masters fumed as their easy prey suddenly turned into a predator. It was all because he took time to study how the body moved. He tested new techniques from other martial arts. Eventually, he learned that breaking someone’s posture is the key to throwing them.

Five decades later, after immortalizing his legacy, Jigoro’s health began failing him. On his death bed, he asked that he be buried in a white belt instead of a black belt. He wanted to be remembered as a learner, not a master. Truthfully, he never even had a belt ranking because nobody had the authority to bestow a belt upon him. He’d created Judo. Even the top-ranked Judokas were his students.

It makes his dying lesson even more notable: we should never stop being a beginner. Embrace the white belt mentality. Any new craft will toss you on your head, many, many times.

How to keep your morale when you feel incompetent

If you go and take an art class, it can feel demoralizing as other people have canvasses coming together with shimmering colors. Several classes in, it may feel like they are progressing faster than you. The reality is that you don’t know other people’s situations. Many of them may have done art in their free time. Even further, progress isn’t linear for each person.

There’s no rule that says you can only enjoy something if you are awesome at it. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be countless karaoke bars with a two-hour waitlist to get on stage and howl at the moon.

Former President, George W. Bush, famously took up painting after his presidency. His wife thought he was crazy when he told her he was going to do it. He never came off as particularly artsy. And the art community wasn’t exactly his biggest donor.

Friends predicted he’d give up within a week. But six months later, reports surfaced that painting was the only thing Bush would talk about at parties. Any off-beat subject was eventually steered back to his latest project. Eventually, he became a very competent oil painter. Let me repeat, George W. Bush got really good at painting after starting in his 60s. Just do as he did and get obsessed and fall in love, regardless of how dumb you feel.

The ultimate compliment you can get

I’ve been writing for four years and only professionally for a year and a half. Recently, a reader left a comment saying, “I have to say, I’ve been reading you since your Quora days and you’ve grown leaps and bounds as a writer.”

That type of compliment makes my day. It cools my fires of self-hatred. I can’t read a lot of my older writing without wincing. Many of you will experience the same with your new crafts. Cringing is the surest sign you are getting better at something. Heck, I hope a day comes when I hate my current writing.

Most of my days editing are me saying, “This sucks. I just need to figure out why.” Right now, I’m agonizing through a very difficult client project. The pay is great. But it’s complex writing and each minute feels like an hour. I get through it because experience has taught me that these painful writing moments are when I get better at writing.

Talking about overcoming hardship as a form of self-improvement is a very tired cliche. But there’s significant merit to it. When you are in the grind, feeling down, remind yourself that your pain means growth is happening.

Lastly, redefine what you are actually doing

In 2013, Toyota broke with other companies and, instead of donating money to the Food Bank for New York City, they donated their expertise. One of the biggest complaints about food banks was the wait times. The needy were often out in the elements, getting pelted with rain and snow, all while waiting for a warm meal. By lending their engineers, Toyota brought average wait times down from 90 minutes to 18 minutes. It was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the charity’s history.

Toyota was simply applying a Japanese concept called kaizen, which stands for “continuous improvement”. The key is to think of your next endeavor not as a skill, but as a set of processes that are all linked together. Then, work to improve them because as one process lifts, so does the whole.

Remember, there are artists who spend their entire life thinking they are terrible at their craft, despite churning out masterpieces. Do not fear the cringe. Do not fear inadequacy. Persevere and you’ll find that one day, out of nowhere, someone will ask you how you got so good at this new hobby. It’s as Epictetus said, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

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