The Noble Art of Being Not Very Good at Stuff

I fulfilled a bit of a life goal last night – I sang with a live band. I love singing, and I’ve always been alright at it when I sing on my own, or with the choirs I’ve been involved with over the years, or doing the odd bit of karaoke. But despite being around bands and people who are in them for my entire adult life, I’d never managed to sing with one before. I’d wanted to, but I’d always been far too scared of completely fucking it up and making a total arse of myself.

But I was pretty tired last night. My defences were down. So when the singer in my husband’s band tried to persuade me to sing a song with them, I had an uncharacteristic moment of sod-it-ness and agreed.

And I completely fucked it up and made a total arse of myself. So I laughed, apologised to the audience and the rest of the band, sat back down and enjoyed the rest of my evening.

Wild and interesting story, right? There’s a point to it, I promise.

See, anyone who knows me knows that I do not like being bad at things. I mean, I doubt it’s anyone’s favourite thing to be, but I really, really do not like being bad at things, and I will go to great lengths to avoid anyone thinking I’m bad at something. At school, I once faked a sprained ankle so the rest of my year group wouldn’t see exactly how much I sucked at cross-country. As I got older and there was less enforced sport, avoiding the things I knew I probably wouldn’t do well got easier. I stuck to the things I knew I could do, and I enjoyed both the feeling of competence and the feeling of being praised for that competence. I learned and I grew and I took advantage of opportunities, of course, but only in the areas I already had a pretty good idea I could excel in.

But in these last (almost) two years of freelancing, I haven’t had the luxury of running away and hiding in the places I feel safe. There is only me now, and if I want to make my business a success, I can’t decide that I don’t want to have a go at certain parts of running a business just because there’s a chance I might not do it perfectly or that I might make a fool of myself. And it seems all of this has finally taught me an important life lesson – that sometimes you’re going to suck at stuff, and people are going to see that you suck at it, and that’s not the end of the world. But you’ll never know until you try.

I’m not saying you should have a go at everything even if you think you might be terrible. I don’t think I’d be very good at editing cozy mysteries, for example. Not because of any self-confidence issues, but because I’ve never read one in my life, and until last year I didn’t even know what one was. I’m not going to take on those kinds of jobs, because I’d be doing the client a disservice by not being the right person for the work. And I’m not about to turn into some kind of “Seize the day! Follow your dreams!” kind of person – I’m always going to be quite risk-averse. Making big changes to your life is hard, especially when there’s a lot at stake, like the roof over your head, and it’s okay to be a bit scared of that. But if, like I’ve always done, you find yourself shying away from opportunities, ask yourself what it is you’re really afraid of damaging – someone else’s work, your financial or personal situation, or your sense of yourself as someone who has to do things well. You can overcome a lack of skills or knowledge through research and training. You can work on your circumstances to manoeuvre yourself into a position where the risks are mitigated. But a fear of failure for failure’s sake will always stop you unless you just…get over it.

It’s easier said than done. No one knows that better than me. And yes, there is always a chance that when you try that thing, you’ll be terrible at it. But just being terrible at something is nothing to be scared of. It might mean you have to make adjustments – you might discover you need more training, to do more research, to outsource that thing in future, or, in my case, to accept that you need a career Plan B that isn’t “become the next Beyoncé”. But at least you’ll know, and you can move forward.

I could not have written this blog post two years ago. There’s no way I could have taken anything positive from the fact that I made such a tit of myself. I still lie awake cursing the time I messed up my lines in the infant school performance of Rip Van Winkle in 1989, and I’m pretty sure I’m never going to be able to listen to “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals without wanting to crawl into a hole and die a little bit. But I’m learning, slowly, that I don’t have to be good at everything. I can balls something up, and it doesn’t have to have a huge impact on the way I see myself. I’m still me. I’m still generally a competent, capable person. Just not one who should ever be given a microphone.

There are three weeks left of this year. That thing, the one you’ve always been too scared to try? There’s still time to make 2017 the year you found out if you could do it. And if it turns out you can’t, you’ll be okay. Honest.

4 thoughts on “The Noble Art of Being Not Very Good at Stuff”

  1. Love it! Perfectionism can be a great excuse for not doing lots of things. What’s the worst that can happen? You can learn what you really can and can’t do. My partner always reminds me ‘Fail forward’, and that always helps. Happy Christmas from another Thomas Editing 😉


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