Why Being Terrible is Kind of Wonderful

If tomorrow you were given the chance to be great at every single skill in your life — I’m talking world-class level, in each of your various interests — would you do it?

For many of us, the answer comes easily: Yes. Being tops at everything is considered Life’s Big Goal. Accordingly, we spend a lot of our time fervently traveling toward the promised land — shoring up weaknesses, honing strengths, targeting where to excel.

But I’d like to point out that this way of thinking misses out on a potentially important point: that there are some real advantages to being terrible.  There’s an underrated beauty in clumsiness. There’s virtue in sucking.

At this point I’d like to introduce the piece de resistance of bad, the great pyramid of terribleness: the golf swing of Mr. Charles Barkley (see above). It is not just bad. It is an Everest of ineptitude, a Versailles of discoordination. (Note: this video is not a fluke — it’s his real swing, as seen here and here in terrifying slow motion.)

Historically speaking, there are two ways of looking at being bad:

1) It’s bad. It’s to be ignored, avoided, and spoken of as little as possible.

2) It’s secretly kind of good, because it teaches important lessons we can’t learn anywhere else.

In this second way of thinking, being bad contains a potential silver lining: character development, teaching the invaluable skill of resilience. We see this all the time, not just in the work of psychologists like Albert Bandura, but also in the biographies of luminaries like Beethoven, Churchill, Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Harry Truman, and John Grisham — all of whom endured excruciating stretches of ineptitude before they got good.

What’s more, we can take this idea even farther.  Because I think the advantages of being terrible go well beyond the eat-your-vegetables benefits of resilience and character. Being terrible can be useful because:

  • It gives us freedom to experiment. Maintaining greatness is a narrow pursuit — you are essentially playing defense, vigilantly guarding against erosion. Being terrible, on the other hand, is a license to try new things. It permits a looseness and a creativity, since there is very little to lose.
  • It connects us to other people. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the way people treat the ever-smiling Barkley and the ever-grim Tiger Woods.  People admire greatness. But they relate to Barkley’s awfulness because we’ve all been there.
  • It lets us practice the vastly underrated skill of knowing when to quit. In this overprogrammed world, it’s all too easy (especially for parents and kids) to say yes to tennis, music, golf, theater, everything. But to get really good at anything, you can’t say yes to everything. Knowing when and how to quit is not just handy — it’s a survival skill.
  • It keeps us humble and grounded. Lives built on the relentless pursuit of perfection tend to be relentlessly narrow. Witness some of the tone-deaf, clueless, and indefensible behavior we’ve seen lately from perfectionists on Wall Street, Washington, and in the athletic arena.  Being terrible is a reminder that we’re like everybody else — vulnerable, human, prone to error. It tilts us toward a learning mindset.

My area of terribleness is the guitar. I’ve played it for 12 years now, and I know all of 12 chords. (That’s one new chord a year, for those of you keeping score.) When it comes time to pick out a melody, I’m hopeless, if not downright Barkleyesque. But I still keep picking the darn thing up. I can’t imagine life without it. And if somebody asked me to justify why I spent time doing something I’m objectively so unskilled at,  I’d have to say that it’s because I just like it, and that’s all.

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