Judging competence and the okayness of being bad

Because very little if anything in life is completely binary, I felt myself needing to qualify many of these thoughts as I wrote. Instead, I’m just going to say here at the beginning that yes, there are exceptions to these generalizations, and since they’re exceptions, their incidence is low. If you’re feeling like you’re the exception all the time, some honest reflection might be in order.

One of many things I’ve seen reframed recently is how judgment in competence is verbalized.

“Say ‘there’s room to improve’ instead of saying you’re bad at something.”

“We don’t have weaknesses—we just have opportunties to improve.”

While I believe that reframing is often positive and worthwhile, I don’t think this one reaches the right place. 

Instead of using different words, let’s disconnect the judgement (and potential shame) from the lack of skill.

There are always things we’re going to be bad at. If you’re adventurous and/or lucky, there will be more things you’re bad at than things you’re good at, because there’s simply not time to get good at All The Things.

[Yes, I think it’s lucky to have the opportunity to try a hundred things in a lifetime while only having resources and interest to pursue a dozen or fewer. A privilege of time, money, contacts, geography, access.]

If being bad at something simply means we haven’t practiced it enough or don’t understand it well or are just missing pieces, then it also means all we need is more practice or understanding or pieces to get better. It’s not a character flaw or some insurmountable defect, and it’s not something we desperately need to try to hide.

Not acknowledging weaknesses is often a bigger problem than having them. 

Maybe we’d be in a better position to receive legitimate feedback on competence in areas that are higher stakes than hobbies.

Maybe we’d judge others less often because we wouldn’t need the synthetic confidence boost.

On the other hand, the people I most commonly hear admitting they are bad at things don’t acknowledge the things they’re good at, perhaps because of a lack self-esteem or confidence. Much like those who self-report not to be bad at anything, their actual ability level isn’t taken into account.

Some questions we could ask to relieve some of the confusion:

How proficient am I? The spectrum of ability is substantial. You can be great and still not pro-level, or be not very good and still better than a beginner.

Similarly, who am I measuring myself against? Am I more skilled than the people in my immediate circle? Than my coworkers? Than the country? Than the world? And does age bracket matter? When we’re impressed by how good a child is at some skill, it’s very rarely on the same scale we judge ourselves by. “Good” is short for “good for a child” which usually means “good for someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience.” Which is exactly what we are when we begin to learn a new skill. 

How critical is this skill? A steady hand is important to play the game Operation, but it’s substantially less critical than a steady hand for actually performing surgery. One you can laugh off; the other, not so much. Another way to ask this is: how good is good enough?

Do I want to improve, do I need to improve, or am I dabbling for fun? If you’re dancing because you love to dance, does it matter if you’re good at it? Do you need to work on it, or can you just do as you do and enjoy it as-is? And if you want to improve for fun—because it would be more fun if you were better—how much do you put into it before improving feels like work and it’s not enjoyable any more? If I need to improve, what steps do I need to take and who can help?

What is “good,” anyway? “Good” is subjective. I love the colors that we’ve painted our house, and I know a lot of people who would very quickly paint over every beautiful wall if they lived here. The colors are not good or bad—they’re just reflections of preference. How high is your bar for what you’re doing? The looser your criteria, the more likely you are to call the result “good.”

If what you’re doing is just for you, it doesn’t matter what other people think. And no matter how skilled you are, lots of people aren’t going to like your output. Not everyone likes The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or U2 or Simon & Garfunkel, and they’re all more popular than any of us is likely to be.  

So. Be bad at stuff. Enjoy doing stuff you’re bad at. Maybe get better or maybe not, depending on your needs and goals. It doesn’t need a reframe: bad isn’t necessarily a bad place to be.

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