It’s one of the first pieces of advice I can remember receiving — maybe my dad said it, or maybe I only imagine he did and ascribed the wisdom accordingly because I was little and when you’re little, you live in an insular world like that: “Don’t say you’re bad at something unless you’re going to try to be better at it.”
We live in a society that prides perfectionism as the be-all of virtues, and has bred generation after generation of people succumbing to its pressures. Everyone’s expected to scramble to rise to the top — we just never take the time to tell people which top that’s supposed to be. Of course, the unsaid there is to allow for room to decide exactly what that top is, where it is, what we define ourselves as the best. And when you’re a frustrated little kid who doesn’t understand why you can’t get something right on the first try, you’re bound to let out a few sentiments here and there about how you’re lamentably bad at something.
And as we grow up, we begin to learn that being bad at a few things isn’t awful — it’s human. It’s refreshing to have flaws, and sometimes, it’s fun to be terrible at things, to revel in ridiculous karaoke sets and botched doodles, to laugh later over that time you tried to make a five course meal and wound up ordering Seamless as a Hail Mary. Being bad sometimes makes for the best stories. There’s freedom in admitting that your prowess can’t and won’t extend everywhere. There’s something refreshing in an adult who doesn’t just admit their shortcomings, but owns them.
But when kids are little, they’re also shuttled from class to class, sport to sport, extracurricular to playdate, and we begin to form ideas that we’re supposed to be the best at everything. The best friend, the best all-star, the best in science and English and the star of the school play and the kid with whom everyone else wants to trade their lunch. We’re told to excel, to never settle for second place — not just in what we love most of all, but in anything. In everything. Fault isn’t seen as natural strength and weakness, it’s seen as an Achilles’ heel to be rectified. We don’t embrace anything we’re not the best at. We sink in humiliation until we change or feign being at least slightly above average and overall okay. Often, we give up before we have the chance to be better. We write ourselves off before we try to see what we’re capable of.
Being “bad” at something doesn’t take away from the fact that it was your best effort. Part of owning your flaws is admitting that maybe there’s space to get better. And besides, “bad” is a subjective perception. One person’s “bad” is another person’s extraordinary advancement. Regardless, it’s okay to be at a personal “bad” now and again. Virtuosos are rare, and anyway, they’ve got their own newly heightened standards to live up to and to beat. And for every Beethoven who composed his first masterwork when he was still stringing together how to read words on a page, there are untold hundreds of thousands of people who were crappy at first. Who couldn’t even dream of even so much as touching that sort of rare talent. But no matter how bad they were, they tried over and over. And that is how they got better.
Saying you’re bad at something isn’t the problem. That’s identifying where you have room to grow — so in fact, it’s good to admit it. Especially when what you’re measuring is your own improvement. The problem is getting caught in feeling bad without a desire to change, and what’s worse is having that desire, but not taking the next steps to change. The problem is accepting being “bad” as a limitation. As a sentence. As if there’s nothing in our power to right what we perceive to be “wrong.” And that’s simply not true. Saying you’re bad at something without action is, often enough, little more than wallowing.
Because at the end of the day, the only thing that’s really “bad” is our attitude about how we perceive ourselves. And if we’re going to call it bad, then we’ve identified what we’d like to change — and it’s now up to us to decide to actually do something about it. To change how we perform, to change how we work, to practice, to change how we structure our day to appropriate our time as needed. Most of all: to change ourselves. And to change our idea of why we’ve been lead to believe “being bad” really is that bad. You can be bad at things sometimes. There’s nothing wrong in that. But dwelling on it will only make it worse. And complaining for the sake of self-pity will get you — and everyone else — absolutely nowhere.
Say you’re bad at something every now and again. Admit to being human. Revel in that if you want to. But don’t declare yourself personally dissatisfied with your ability unless you’re going to personally work to change that. It’s self-respecting at the end of the day, and everybody has to learn to take it for themselves. Or at least, from someone else — as I from my dad, and as, hopefully, you from me.