Letting Myself Be Bad at What I Love

Thanks to a recent article here on Medium written by James Altucher, I went to the library on a serious personal mission yesterday. I’ve never been much of a non-fiction reader, but I was struck by inspiration. I need to broaden my horizons, I need to get back to reading (which is difficult after a prolonged period of academic pursuits), and I need to find some way to move forward personally and professional.

A few weeks ago I got a Passion Planner. I understand the pitfalls of thinking that just buying the right gear will suddenly make you successful — but hear me out. I read the owner’s statement about why she created the planner, and it resonated with me, as I, too, am constantly looking for the right planner without really knowing what that actually looks like. And she went ahead and made it.

So I mapped out some goals, including but not limited to: sell a screenplay, buy a house, learn JavaScript, and write more posts on Medium.

Let me back up a skosh. I moved back to L.A. to take care of my dad, and have been looking for work since mid-June, roughly. But I wasn’t going to waste my time sitting around in my dad’s living room like I did for those three years when I lived here before! So I made a calendar, looked up a bunch of events, and spent way too much money to go to movies, Q&As, panels, comedy shows, whatever. There’s always something here, I was ready to take advantage of it — and I did.

The more shows I went to the more I read up about people who were moving around on the scene, making a little bit of noise. I saw a lot of performers I’ve never heard of, but who seemed to be doing really great work. A lot of the time when you’re in Los Angeles, it’s just overwhelming. There’s a lot of people, and everyone wants something. And in the age of viral videos, a lot of people want that something right fucking now. But these people, it seems, are chipping away at something and often have been chipping away for many, many years.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t bought into the viral thing just a little bit. I’m lazy even when it comes to things that I am passionate about. I’ve always been so much of a hobbyist that I can’t focus long enough on anything to be particularly good at it! And I think part of that is that laziness that I have to fight every single day. I’m pretty good at almost everything at a beginner level because I’m an apt learner, but the second an activity or skill requires more investment, requires me to move up a step, “level up” in my knowledge and skills, I bail out in favor of something new.

So I went to like a million comedy shows and movies for the last two months, and then I hit a wall and just stopped going, even though I’d already paid for shows last week. I just didn’t go to them. Part of it is I feel tired of driving around by myself, tired of waiting in line by myself, the Nerdmelt showroom is like really fucking hot no matter how much they blast the A/C, so I was tired of sticking to and then sliding around in their chairs (sorry).

It’s also the reason I got exactly 44% of the way through JavaScript on Codecademy before I had to actively fight against my instincts to abandon it because I couldn’t get the hang of loops. It’s why I could write like seven novels as a young adult, but never go back and fix any of them, or literally do anything with the experience I had built of just sitting down and writing. It’s why I swiftly moved on from horseback riding after building myself up, naturally talented, for three years.

So this is my inclination in life, and it’s why I don’t think I’ll ever really get anywhere. I’ll get only 44% to anywhere and then I’ll quit and move on. It’s also why I took Altucher’s article to heart, and picked up five of the books on his list at the library. Last night I read the entirety of Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up.

He spent like almost 20 years working on himself and his interests and his identity as a comic before his breakthrough. He makes a point of mentioning that one night on The Tonight Show didn’t do anything for him. It took 16 appearances on the show before he really became something, during quite a long span of time when he was also doing lots of other things. He didn’t do that first night on the couch next to Johnny Carson and become famous overnight. To the general public, yeah, that’s what it looks like — but in reality it took almost 20 years.

Consider this popular quote from Chuck Close:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

It doesn’t seem like it matters how often it’s repeated — we all hope we’ll be that Jennifer Lawrence who doesn’t take acting classes but makes a huge splash almost immediately (even that is a deception — she simply started acting at a very young age). We think, if we could just make one viral video, then we’ll have it MADE — YouTube will start paying me and I can quit my day job!

The truth is even people who find success in viral videos (planned ones, not, like, Charlie Bit My Finger) have been working at something for a very long time to reach a certain skill level. And they were bad at it at first, probably. Very bad at it. Then a little less bad.

A great read over at Reddit is this thread by artist Noah Bradley who chronicles his development from start to now. You see where he started, what he had to do to get better, and you can get a feel for the work that goes into success. And you can see how, for a long time, he was bad at what he loved to do. But he kept doing it and got better.

In Steve Martin’s book I was struck by how often he talked about really shitty shows. How many jokes didn’t land. How long he had a routine made up of material lifted from others. And most importantly — how unafraid he was to fail.

I think I can’t stand being bad at something. I want so badly to be a great writer or artist that I can imagine myself successful but I can’t take it if I’m not as good at it as I want to be. I think this is why I’m not competitive — I love powerlifting but I’ll probably never compete in it. I was a professional horseback rider but couldn’t even imagine riding at a show. I feel constantly that I’m a fraud at the things I’m passionate about — I legitimately expect that the trainers at my gym talk about me behind my back (I literally have never talked to any of them but I’m there almost every day, so they must recognize me?!)

It’s this weird egotistical certainty that everyone knows who I am but for all the wrong reasons. I can’t even talk about the plot of my books to my family, much less share any of them with anyone else.

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times successful people talk about feeling like a fraud. Or I hear that quote, “Being bad at something is the first step to being sorta good at it.” I can’t seem to drill the lesson into my head.

But for the first time I’m going to try. And I’ll fail at it, for sure. But as long as I write my goals down again for next week in my Passion Planner, maybe I’ll be able to keep going for once. First, 44%. Next, 100%!