Getting Prolific, Day 7: Getting Good + Being Bad = Becoming Great

Are you courageous enough to suck?

Here’s a news story that made me chuckle.

A computer engineer apparently couldn’t get enough of the sound of a first time musician, so he created a robot to play a melodica poorly for hours on end.

Here’s how it works.

A host computer running software listens to the melody it’s trying to imitate, and sends serial commands to the electronic instrument to try and match the notes. But the melodica keeps hitting a series of wrong notes in the process.

Alessandro, the cheeky engineer behind the project, ultimately demonstrated his robot at a local music festival, where it played internet tutorial snippets and jammed with a local band for twenty four straight hours.

Now that’s what you call a commitment to being bad. Hope the tickets weren’t too expensive for that show.

But while there’s clearly an irony and absurdity behind his performance, the bigger principle here is one worth studying.

Because learning how to do anything for the first time will always be a painful and frustrating experience.

Whether you’re playing an instrument, starting a new job, swinging a racket or break dancing, you essentially have to commit to being bad. For a good while. You have to be courageous enough to suck, but also resilient enough to embrace the suck until competence eventually kicks in.

Gilbert writes in her bestselling book that frustration is not an interruption of your process, frustration is the process. And learning how to manage yourself between the bright moments and endure disappointment is part of your job.

Her words remind me of an old coworker, who would often beat himself up for not immediately being good at something new.

Johnny was an exceptionally smart, talented, attractive and cool person. He was one of those people for whom almost everything came effortlessly.

Couldn’t stand the bastard myself. Another prodigy who excels at everything they try? Good for him.

However, when our company started requiring each team member to become certified with the latest analytics certification, he actually struggled pushing through the wall of bad, just like the rest of us. Johnny couldn’t accept himself sucking at something. It was off brand for him.

During lunch one day, I shared the advice my mentor once gave me in a similar situation.

Have faith in your ability to get good. If you suck at something, bridge the gap from what you already know. Reframe your thinking about the current task so you experience it like something you’ve done before. Notice ways the thing you’re trying to learn is like another skill you already have, and then apply those similarities to ramp up your learning.

Johnny hung himself later that afternoon.

No, I’m just kidding. That’s a terrible joke.

He actually responded with great humility and committed to being bad. And within a few months, he became so adept at the analytics program, he began leading trainings for our interns.

Are you courageous enough to suck? Are you willing to spend a thousand days being bad at something before it finally starts to click?

It’s the foundation of greatness. The desire to become good plus the commitment to being bad. You need both.

Yes, learning how to do anything for the first time is a painful and frustrating experience.

But the more important meta skill of embracing the suck until competence eventually kicks in will serve you for a lifetime.

Do you beat yourself up for not immediately being good at something new?