From 0 to 18, we’re constantly doing stuff we’re bad at. It starts out with just being by ourselves at night, then walking, then talking. Eventually, we go off to school. We’re out of our comfort zones, meeting all kinds of new people in a new environment, with new rules and new authorities. We’re forced to learn a wide variety of subjects, most of which we’re not very good at. Even if you’re spectacular at math, you’ve still got to take English. And history. And science. And art. And Spanish. And P.E. If we do well enough, we go to college, where we get to do a little more of what we’re good at, but we’re still forced to do a lot of stuff we’re bad it.
And then, we’re done. For the most part, we can decide to only do the things we’re good at. For the rest of our lives. Bad at math? Well, no more math problems; we’ve got a calculator and a copy of Excel. Anything more complicated than that and it’s not our problem. Bad at writing? No more essays for us. Uncoordinated? No need to suffer through organized sports anymore.
And so it goes. Everybody specializes to one degree or another, and professionals do it even more than anyone else. The things we get good at, we tend to repeat over and over again. Why shouldn’t we? We’re good at them, and it makes us money.
There’s a huge downside though. By not improving at the stuff we’re bad at, we’re leaving ourselves at a huge disadvantage. The ability to combine knowledge and skill from multiple disciplines is crucial these days, not only to spur innovation and get ahead, but to keep from being trampled. Think of all the industries that are undergoing seismic shifts right now: publishing, music, and entertainment (both television and cinema) all spring immediately to mind as industries where great numbers of people who made fantastic livings five years ago are struggling to get by. If you only do one thing well, what happens when that thing is no longer as valuable as it once was?
The key to learning how to do things we’re bad at is to overcome two big mental blocks:
- Nobody wants to look like an ass
- Nobody wants to feel incompetent
The more skilled you are at something, the more successful you’ve become in one area, the bigger these blocks are likely to be. Teenagers look like asses all the time, so it’s not a big deal to flub a line in Spanish class or make a horrible looking book cover. But, if you’re a big time surgeon, where you’re used to being supremely knowledgeable and well respected, getting something wrong feels a lot different. If you’re a hot shot attorney who’s used to always having the right answer or the perfect retort, not knowing what the hell you’re doing feels incredibly uncomfortable. Recognize these things, accept them, and move on. If you really can’t accept them, if you’re ego’s too massive, do something you’re bad at in a private setting.
The benefits are tremendous. Not only will you get good at something else, something that may open up a whole new avenue in something you’re currently working on or may even spawn a new career, you’ll build momentum. When new things you’re bad at come along, they’ll be easier to tackle. Once you’ve accomplished one thing you were formerly terrible at, everything else looks less scary by comparison. The next time you wander across something you’re bad at, you’ll know you can handle it because you’ve accomplished things that you were terrible at in the past.