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On Fear, Failure, and Embracing Ineptitude

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When was the last time you were truly bad at something? Years ago, in algebra class? Last month, when you tried yoga for the first time? For me, it was last year when I started learning ReactJS. As a web developer, I knew it was a crucial skill to master, but I couldn’t escape the fact that I sucked at it. Though I eventually improved, my initial failure to grasp the technology made me so despondent that I started to question my career choice; after all, as a developer, shouldn’t I just pick this stuff up naturally?

My feelings weren’t uncommon. People hate being bad at things. It makes us feel useless and foolish and we fear that our incompetence will make others think less of us. Being bad at things is important, though; it’s the first step toward becoming good at things. Improvement at any skill requires that mistakes be made and learned from, and there’s no shortcut around this hard truth. In other words, if we’re not willing to be bad at something, we’ll never be good at anything.

The actress Helen Hayes, often called the “First Lady of American Theatre”, is credited with the saying “the expert in anything was once a beginner”. This idea is hardly revolutionary. One could find dozens of well-known quotations (not to mention inspirational memes) that express a similar sentiment. When we think of being a beginner, however, we picture ourselves practicing a skill diligently and improving steadily and predictably. We rarely imagine the hours of frustration and the crushing self-doubt that usually come hand-in-hand with starting something new. We accept that we’ll start as a beginner when learning a skill, but we can’t stomach what that truly means: that we’ll suck at it.

Some of the experts we admire are proof that being a beginner often means being untalented. Steve Martin, arguably one of the most important figures in comedy over the last 50 years, admits in a promotional video for his online Comedy Masterclass that he is not a born natural: “I guarantee you, I had no talent. None.” Similarly, the Brontë sisters, now considered masters of Victorian Gothic fiction, were unremarkable writers in their youths; in “The Talent Code”, author Daniel Coyle states that their early writing “wasn’t very good” and “lacked any signs of incipient genius”. This phenomenon is not restricted to creative pursuits, either; in her book “A Mind for Numbers”, Oakland University Professor of Engineering Barbara Oakley reveals that in high school (and for most of her twenties), she was so bad at math and science that it jeopardized her grades and her career. Like Martin and the Brontë sisters, she owes her success to many years of disciplined effort, not to natural innate ability.

Is it logical to struggle to learn a new skill without the security of natural talent? The stories of Steve Martin, the Brontë sisters, and Barbara Oakley seem to indicate that natural aptitude is not a prerequisite for success, and recent research agrees. Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has spent her career studying what she calls the “growth mindset”: a person’s belief that disciplined effort will lead to improvement, even in areas where one seems to lack any sort of obvious aptitude. She contrasts this attitude with the “fixed mindset”, the belief that talent and intelligence are fixed traits which cannot be improved or changed. People who possess a fixed mindset often lack the motivation to apply themselves when learning skills; they believe that if they possess talent, they will be naturally successful without having to exert themselves and that if they are untalented, no amount of practice will change that. Conversely, people with a growth mindset apply themselves with steady dedication, even when confronted by their own ineptitude, because they are confident that talent can be earned – and, according to Dweck’s research, their successes prove them right.

Of course, even if we embrace the growth mindset and believe we can rise up through diligent application, it’s still not easy to keep plugging away at something when we are bad at it. In an interview segment that has long since gone viral, veteran NPR journalist Ira Glass explains why budding creative types often give up: “most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short.” It’s during this rough period, Glass says, that many aspiring creatives give up; like most people, they can’t stomach their own incompetence. This discomfort is something we are all familiar with . We worry that even our most sincere effort will produce an underwhelming result, so we often avoid making it at all. We are immobilized not by our ineptitude, but by our fear of underperformance.

The importance of pushing through that fear is especially paramount in the tech industry. Tools and technologies change so rapidly that it’s impossible to start a job knowing every single skill we will ever need in the role. To be successful, we need to learn to cultivate new skills, and with any learning process, there is a learning curve: an unavoidable period of incompetence. The shame we feel in the face of that inadequacy can make us reluctant to seek input and assistance from seniors and coworkers, or to embrace challenging tasks, even when those actions would help us grow and learn.

For newcomers to the industry, the fear of underperformance can be especially overwhelming. We all hope to be “unicorns”, the naturally gifted and knowledgeable top talent that successful companies seek out, and we let the divide between this ideal and our current reality fill us with despair. Instead of comparing ourselves to those we admire, we must accept what most smart companies have already realized: the best employees aren’t those who come into the job magically knowing everything – they’re the ones who eagerly embrace their ineptitude long enough to turn it into mastery.

When we find ourselves discouraged by ineptitude, instead of shrinking from the challenge in a fit of hopelessness, let’s give ourselves permission to suck. Let’s brush it off when it feels like everyone around us is gliding by effortlessly, propelled by some innate talent. Instead of being ashamed, let’s be proud of our attempts because it means we are actually making an effort. Let’s embrace being bad for as long as it takes to become badass.

Anya Craig
Front End Developer