Give Yourself A Chance To Get Good

For the most part, I don’t like doing things that I’m not good at.

I prefer doing things I'm good at. Especially as I get older, I find I dislike being “bad” at something. The more expertise I gain in my respective fields, the more I find I enjoy -- and gravitate towards -- things that I'm already good at.

When we were children, we spent ample amounts of time being frustrated, learning and figuring out new things. We did it every day, a hundred times a day, sometimes even a hundred times a minute.

On a single day in Kindergarden, we learned how to tie our shoes, comb our hair, dress ourselves, how to share and play with others (sometimes not so well), what splinters were, whether landing from a big jump was painful or thrilling, how to make daisy chains, what paint is, what happens when put stuff in our noses, and how to stand in a line to get lunch. The teacher had activities for us planned every fifteen minutes and our brains were always expanding, never saturated.

As a result, we were tired -- we conked out for nap time twice a day and consumed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and goldfish and apple juice. We were constantly running around, wondering why on earth adults were so tediously repeating to us that we ought to “slow down!” (Of course, as every five-year-old knows, why slow down if I can get there rightnow?)

And then, somehow, we became adults. We made it through the awkward-bobbly teenage angst years and even through college and asserted our independence, autonomy, and maturation through increased levels of responsibility, decision making, and ability. I have a general understanding of what a 401K is and why I need it; I believe in the time value of money through compounded interest; I hope to make informed decisions when voting in a democracy; I show up to work on time; I've made a life list and learned how to say no; I understand the value of saving for a rainy day, and I am, to every five-year-old, a boring adult.

Now what? Am I done learning?  I like to think that somewhere inside of every adult still lies our inner five-year-old, the monkey-ish person who bounces in meetings and runs in the halls instead of walks, who says what they think, and asks the most obvious (and the most interesting) questions about how the world works, and why it works the way it does.

I like to look back at my 5-year-old self and take a cue from the crazy girl running around on the playground and try to remember what it felt like to be at that pace of learning, growing, exploring, and being frustrated. When I get frustrated with learning new things, especially if I shy away because it’s hard or difficult -- or i’m not yet any good at it -- I think about how i would measure up to my 5-year-old self.

Quite frankly, she would probably kick my ass at her skill-acquiring ability. Granted, the complexity of the skills we learn as adults may not be comparable to our abilities as a kindergardener. But there are still lessons:

  • The first time trying something new is usually filled with effort, struggle, energy, and a low satisfaction-to-energy ratio. Why fall on your face 20 times trying to do handstands if you’ve already perfected sitting in a chair comfortably?  If, however, you only did what you were good at, then you would be done learning. Imagine, then: nope, I’m not going to try that because it’s something new. Can’t do it, sorry.
  • In work, it can take slow, dedicated, frustratingly long amounts of time to get good at something. At times, I’ve contemplated leaving my job because of the day in and day out exhaustion-frustration of tasks being difficult and new. But what holds me to my desk is the fact that I'm learning, no matter how discouraging it can be -- and that staying at home, or doing something I already know how to do will not yield the same satisfaction or sense of accomplishment when I tackle, acquire and absorb new skills, techniques and knowledge.
  • The downside is that you can’t always tell how long it will take to “get good” at something. You don’t remember how long it took you to learn how to tie your shoes -- now you just know how to do it.  And you do it automatically. And you’re probably pretty glad you practiced every day of that month in kindergarten, because the more you practiced, the more quickly you learned the skill.  You won’t be good at something for a while -- not until you put in effort, energy and perseverance.
  • It’s inherently humbling to be in an entry-level job: the tasks vary from ridiculously easy to frustrating, over your head, and complicated. Sometimes the most difficult challenge of new tasks is figuring out how to figure them out: learning how to learn. Each day I walk into the office prepared to be surprised, to learn, to explore, research and discover. I’m never “done learning."

And sometimes, it takes a long time to get good at something. It’s been said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something.  Given that a year is (roughly) 2000 work hours, then figure it takes a least five years to become good at something. That's five full-time years -- it will take longer if it’s a hobby or a part time endeavor. Get grinding ... see you in 5 years. So if you’re struggling in the first 1, 2, or 3 years of a new job, first, breathe a sigh of relief: you're right where you should be.

Give yourself the chance to learn.  Leaving because learning is hard is never a reason to quit. The lesson in not giving up?

Give yourself a chance to get good at something.

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