Saturday, December 1, 2012

Permission to Suck

This phrase has been on my mind a lot lately. I'm not exactly sure where I first heard, but it seems to have more-or-less originated David Kadavy. And I know I've often read Seth Godin talking about taking risks and embracing failure as part of doing something meaningful.

The thing is, if I only do things that I'm good at, I'm not exploring my boundaries. If I refuse to suck at something, I can't do anything new. I've mentioned before that my friend Jim says that you're allowed to suck at anything for the first year. If I play my cards right, I'll always be sucking at something.

So here are a few things I've been sucking at this year.


Somehow I made it through childhood without learning how to swim properly. So I decided I was going to learn how to swim this year. It would open up a number of opportunities for me like triathlons, kayaking, etc. I was going to sign up for lessons at the local rec center during the summer, but the class filled up too quickly. So my family and I started just going to the pool once a week while school was out.

It turns out that chasing kids around the pool is a bad way to learn how to swim. The best I could do was try to float on my back in the kiddie pool and find my balance in the water. My legs still seem to want to sink, but I guess it helped get me more comfortable with things.

A coworker had given me a book about swimming technique, and some of the ideas from that were floating around in the back of my mind. So while we were at the hotel pool during our Thanksgiving Getaway, I was surprised to discover that I was suddenly able to swim from one end of the pool to the other. Not very well, mind you. I was expending much more energy than I thought should be necessary. But I was doing it. I even managed a back stroke. As long as I can practice a bit more often, I'm pretty sure I can get to a point where I can feel okay saying that I know how to swim.


This just looked like a lot of fun. I've never had very good balance, and it's something that I'm trying to improve. My wife wasn't thrilled with the idea of spending the money on a slackline when we don't have anywhere in the yard to rig it up. But when I came across a Gibbon line at an REI yard sale, I had to grab it.

This has given me an interesting opportunity to be terrible at something in public. The only places I've been able to practice are at parks and at the office. But it doesn't really matter. Honestly, I expected people to laugh at me a lot more than they do. Instead, they mostly seem curious. And of course some make jokes about me needing a pole like tight-rope walkers use. I wonder if seeing someone going through those first stumbling steps of failure while learning something new encourages others to overcome some fear they might have of taking on new challenges of their own.


This one is brand new for me. I decided some time during the summer that this winter I was finally going to learn how to ski. My real interest is in backcountry ski mountaineering kinds of things, but that doesn't seem like a great environment to learn in for an absolute beginner. So it's groomed slopes and lifts for me right now. Still, I want to learn using the same gear that I'll some day be using on more adventurous terrain, so rather than renting the equipment, I hunted down some bargains and got the best gear that I could without breaking the bank. Now I'm financially committed to doing this.

Last Sunday, after we got back from Utah, I drove up to Loveland and signed up for a first-timer lesson. I happened to meet the instructor while I was sitting around waiting for the class to start. I told him that he was going to think my alpine touring setup was kind of weird, but he seemed to think my rationale was sound.

Those big floppy skis were every bit as awkward as I thought they would be on the hard-packed resort slopes. But it all basically worked just fine, and the lesson was a ton of fun. I'm going back tomorrow for another lesson and more practice. I don't know that I'll be descending any backcountry couloirs this year, but I'll get there eventually.

Rock Climbing

Okay, I have to say that considering I've only been climbing since about May or June, I feel pretty good about how my skills are developing. But the best I've been able to do so far is top-roping some of the 5.10 routes at the gym. Somehow I've got it in my mind that you have to be able to lead 5.11s before you can really consider yourself a good climber. That's probably not accurate or fair, but apparently it's the standard I'm holding myself against.

My very first climbing experience was at a little introductory course at the REI store in Denver. It was a very safe and encouraging environment to suck in. Everyone there was starting at the same place I was, so there was no pressure to be good at it. But taking the next step by going to a climbing gym full of people who know what they're doing was really intimidating.

When it comes to being intimidated by something that I really want to do, I find myself having to just stare in the mirror, or so to speak, and telling myself, "Get over it." So the first time or two, I went by myself, played around in the bouldering cave, rediscovered some humility, and having a really good time. Once my daughter started going with me, it got a little easier. It always helps to have someone around that you know, even if they're six years old.

F and I are getting better and better all the time, I think, and I'm not so self-conscious about being mediocre as I was at first. It's been a great way for us to spend some bonding time, and we're both learning a lot about pushing ourselves to improve. She sent a 5.7 last Thursday that she'd been working on for a while. It was so cool to see the thrill of achievement in her eyes.


For me, sucking at something can be a big motivator to work harder. Nobody likes being awful at something they're trying to do. But it's the all-important first phase of learning something new. Embrace it, and once you stop sucking at whatever your thing may be, find something new to suck at while you enjoy the feeling of excelling at the old thing.

So what are you sucking at these days? I love to hear the enthusiasm of someone who's found a new pursuit that's worth struggling for.

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