I think I might have some masochistic tendencies.
Usually, when people are terrible at something, they find alternatives, or they stop entirely. I do that sometimes, but I’m also weirdly persistent when faced with an obvious lack of acumen for a skill or pursuit.
In college, I was captain of the only flag football team not associated with a fraternity. We lost every game we played, and recruiting enough teammates to show up and get pounded into the grass (flag football is less pain-free than it sounds) on a weekly basis was almost as hard as recovering from all the scrapes and bruises. Even after 12 weeks of regular practice and 8 games, I never got any good, and thus relegated myself to playing defensive/offensive line roles.
This summer, I picked up a ukulele, despite having never successfully played a musical instrument. After a few days of practice, I could play a half-dozen chords, but even after weeks of semi-regular playing, I haven’t gotten good enough to memorize a single song or play with any semblance of skill or rhythm. I had hoped I could learn one song in time for Geraldine’s birthday this year, but no dice.
And, this past week, in Ireland, I took my first drive on the left-side of the road, and tried driving my first stick-shift vehicle. We’d rented a car to see the Giant’s Causeway a couple hours north of Belfast, and it turned out they only had manual drive rentals, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I watched a few videos on YouTube, read a few articles on the topic, and then got into the car and promptly caused my wife and myself to panic for a good 30 minutes on the side streets of Belfast before getting onto the highway and causing real fear. It was certainly one of the most stressful and difficult things I’ve done in the last few years.
The weirdest part is that despite bad experiences, I’m probably going to keep at the ukulele, the manual drive transmission, and, if my back ever gets better, maybe some flag football, too. And I’ll likely try some new things at which I’ll also be terrible.
It’s not just that new experiences are interesting to me. In many cases, I’d say honestly that I don’t enjoy them – certainly not during the activity, and sometimes not after either. But I do find myself getting great value in weird ways.
The first is a probably-romanticized sense of accomplishment. Doing something lots of other people can do well and doing a terrible job of it is hardly praise-worthy, yet in my head, there’s a phantom checklist with a tic in the box. I think that checklist is responsible for removing some fear from trying new things. It’s almost saying “you’ve been terrible at lots of stuff and didn’t cause permanent harm, so go for it!” To me, anytime I’m traveling and not working (and sometimes when it’s just the latter) feels wasted if I’m not experiencing something new
I’m also of the belief that being terrible at something gives me the frame of reference to be a better teacher. When I experience the painful awkwardness that accompanies learning something new and failing again and again, I remember the emotions and the mindset that failure creates. Those are the experiences I try to draw on when I’m teaching – whether that’s internally at Moz (on topics like management, team cohesion, culture, etc) or externally to marketers (on SEO, social media, CRO, etc). For me, great teaching comes from an empathy for the pain of learning.
Last, I have a fear that as I get older, I’ll lose my ability to adapt to the new. It’s not just technology that moves fast in the field of web marketing, but tactics, people, organizations, skills, and everything associated with what we do and how. My past experience has been that I’m rarely good at something when I first pick it up. I take my time.
It took me years to get good at blogging and years to be anything but a failure at building a company. I’ve been terrible at Facebook marketing for several years now (thankfully Moz has folks who are great at it), which has caused my EdgeRank to spiral into oblivion and obscurity. I’m fighting a long battle with work/life balance that I’ll probably write more about soon. To fight that potential loss of adaptability and to overcome the roadblock of initial failure, I’ve had to accept that doing things at which I suck will be a part of my life. Honestly, that recognition and acceptance have made the failures less painful.
Being terrible at something might be an inhibitor to some, but for me, it’s a healthy reminder to keep going. I just have to pick which of my awful skills to pursue.