Why you should be bad at something

I read an NYT article recently about The Really Terrible Orchestra. Their goal, in their own words, is as follows:

The policy of the orchestra is to make no distinction between the various grades of ability and the various forms of music, or time signature. The RTO looks forward to a further lowering of standards, in order to underline its commitment to accessibility and relevance.

You can go to their website and listen (they’re not that bad), but that’s not the point. The point is this: if the orchestraBoston Philharmonic and the RTO both threw parties on the same night, the RTO party would kick The Boston Philharmonic party’s ass. Why? Because the RTO vibe, as I read it, is free and open. They’re looking to experience more than to be perfect. Their rule set for what music is, and what it means, is way more open than any formalized orchestra could ever be.

This sounds idiotic but I think being good, as in proficient, isn’t good all the time. No doubt being good is good: I’ll hire a good doctor or lawyer over a bad one every time. But as I get older I realize how important it is for my soul to be bad or awful in at least one thing I do, and to take pleasure in it anyway. There is a way to take pleasure in things independent of my ability at them and I’m convinced that cultivating it will make me a happier person. This works solo, but even in groups I’d rather spend time with other people being silly & bad, than boring and good.

And while children naturally have this ability since most toddlers are happy and talentless (despite what their parents say), I find as I age it’s increasingly hard to find peers who:

  1. Are willing to be bad in front of others, much less enjoy it
  2. Accept my interest in taking pleasure in my badness at something.

Perhaps I need new friends, or must ignore their judgments, either way, as we age there’s the assumption we should know better than to do things we’re bad at. If you’re 15 and dance like a hapless idiot, that’s one thing, but when you’re 35, it’s a different story. In my thirties now I find people my age take life so much more seriously than a decade ago and I don’t fit in so well. I’m still crazy. And struggle as I might, my peers have more influence on me that I care to admit.

Back to my original point, being bad is a requirement in doing new things. To start anything new I have to concede badness: the first weeks of learning to speak Greek or taming alligators will be ugly. And I’m convinced the increasing fear of looking bad has everything to do with the tendency for people to try fewer new things as they age. We lose familiarity with the uncertainties of the new. We forget the necessity of feeling like an idiot now and then to grow. And before we know it we resist new experiences based on our forgotten understanding of how we got our old experiences: we did lots of stupid embarrassing things to accumulate all the skills and life knowledge we have.

For all these reasons there is freedom and joy in being bad at something – often more than being good at something.

I’m considering adding a new heuristic into my life:

  1. Pick up a new activity that I’m bad at.
  2. Spend time enjoying my badness at that thing while trying to learn it.
  3. If I somehow get good at that thing, go to #1

I admit now I’m bad at being bad – much worse than I used to be, if that makes sense. But I’m making a point to get better at being worse – and we’ll see what happens.

23 Responses to “Why you should be bad at something”

  1. Chris

    Agree 100%! Some people take life waaaay too seriously in that respect. I find laughing at myself for being bad at something is actually healthy and can make you more happy about yourself.

    Obviously if you’re bad at everything, well, that’s a different story ;)

  2. Bob Balaban

    I have been following your very sound advice for many years by singing out loud in front of my children. I enjoy it immensely (especially if the radio is playing something I like), even if they don’t.

  3. Jim Bullock

    Everything you are good at, you were bad at at one time. Every time you realize there is another layer of performance, or ability, or possibility, you are suddenly “bad” where before you were “good.” In reality your ability hasn’t changed, you have simply entered a larger world.

    The people who continue to grow throughout their lives know this and embrace it. Their worlds keep getting bigger. These are the friends to have.

    The other folks, well, you’ve heard the parable of the big fish in the small pond.

  4. Helen

    I totally agree with this. I used to play soccer (something which I had a complete lack of aptitude for) with the division seven women’s league in my hometown in Australia. It was fun not worrying about winning or losing too much but just doing something that was continually challenging for me and totally different from the things that I’m actually good at.

    I also found that remembering what being bad at something was like gave me a contrast to better understand what being good at things means.

  5. Metatone

    I’m with you Scott. I let the fear of being bad get in the way of doing new things far too often. Too much emphasis on dignity/respectableness gets in the way of learning and enjoying life.

    Mind you, some days it’s hard when the things you are “good at” are intangible…

  6. Denis Howe

    A truth that is at the same time obvious but mind-alteringly new.

    At 46 I’ve just taken up foil fencing. I’m crap at it, as are many of the people I do it with, but we all really enjoy it.

  7. Daniel Ballot

    I’m pretty sure this column is about Bill Shatner and his whole life philosophy. It’s worked well for him.

  8. Mary

    I am completely on board with this philosophy… except that time constraints mean that step #1 means “stop doing something I’m already doing in order to make room for a new activity THEN pick up a new activity that I’m bad at.”

    Sometimes this is a great optimisation activity: give up something that I’m not enjoying. But sometimes I achieve that rare state: a life filled with stuff I enjoy doing! It’s hard then to decide to shake it up. Fortunately though, there’s stuff you can be respectably bad at, or at least in the beginner’s mindset for, for many years. Music is one actually. So is yoga. So are languages.

  9. Scott


    > I also found that remembering what being
    > bad at something was like gave me a
    > contrast to better understand what being
    > good at things means.

    Yes! I agree, and tried to work this in somewhere, but it never fit. It also reminds me what it feels like to be new at something, so when I’m doing something I’m good at, and encounter someone that’s bad (but trying), some empathy is easier to come by.

  10. Diana

    Formula for being bad at any activity: use the other hand. It opens up lots of new opportunties for badness.

  11. Richard Morton

    Interesting about the dance thing. I have always been bad at it and now accept it. My experience though is that as you get into the forties people expect you to be bad at dancing (especially men), and so if you get better you would probably be seen as abnormal. Thirty Five is probably the peak age for dancing then.

  12. Jeffrey J. Hardy

    I’ll do you one better (…do you one better….get it?)…Allowing yourself to be “bad” at something is akin to allowing yourself to be human and fallible. It can even be endearing to those around you.

    My Spanish is terrible, but native speakers love it when I try to fumble through a few sentences. They smile at me and try to help (and then give me an extra scoop of ground beef in my burrito). The effort let’s them identify with me, since some of them struggle with English.

    This is true of all of our human encounters.

    I am also a musician (albeit a marginal one). But there is a liberation that comes from my live performances. I have conquered my fear of looking silly or making a mistake (a fear that simply paralyzes many musicians). I conquered the fear because I LOVE music and I LOVE performing it–even if I such at times. And you know what? I am a better musician for having conquered the fear of not being a good musician.

    It has been said that the man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read. Let us extend that corollary to say that the man who is good but stops because of his imperfection will have less happiness and success than the man who is marginally talented and throws it all out there. (Woody Allen said that 90% of success in life is just showing up)

    Great thoughts all around.

    Be well,
    Jeffrey J. Hardy

  13. Robin

    Some idea of perfection, or some perfect way which is set up by someone else is not the true way for us. Each one of us must make his or her own true way, and when we do, that way will express the universal way. This is the mystery. When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything. When you try and understand everything, you will not understand anything. The best way is to understand yourself, and then you will understand everything. So when you try hard to make your own way, you will help others, and you will be helped by others. Before you make your own way you cannot help anyone, and no one can help you. To be independent in this true sense, we have to forget everything which we have in our mind and discover something quite new and different moment after moment. This is how we live in this world.

    — Shunryu Suzuki, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind



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