How to Be Great? Be Okay With Being Bad

Published: 2022-03-29

I was leaving the golf course the other day after a terrible range session and I had a revelation about something I've been feeling for awhile: my desire to be good at a lot of things is keeping me from being great at one.

I fully recognize that sounds a bit arrogant, and it might be. But before you judge, let me explain.

I'm an Enneagram 5, also known as The Investigator. One of The Investigator's core fears is being incompetent at something. We will do anything to give off the impression that we have things under control. As you could imagine, this is a huge problem when it comes to trying new things. I want to be good at it, but it's hard for me to bear the fact that I'm awful for a time. So naturally, I don't like to try new things.

I'll use drawing as an example. I suck at drawing. My handwriting is bad, I can't draw, I can't paint, I can't do any of that stuff. But I also have no desire to be good at drawing. So the tension between "I suck" and "I want to be good" isn't there, because I don't want to be good.

However every once in awhile, I'll discover a topic or see something that peaks my curiosity just enough and is fun for me that I want to get good at it. Lately, that has been playing golf, writing, and developing. When I was in high school, it was video editing.

There's just one problem. There's no way I can be great at all of those things, and attempting to do so is keeping me being just "okay" at each of them.

  • The desire to be good at developing is stopping me from being an amazing video editor.
  • The desire to be good at golf is keeping me from being an amazing developer.
  • The desire to be good at writing is keeping me from being a great developer and a great video editor.

The reason is simple: I'm splitting my time between so many different things, it's impossible to cross the threshold of amazing at any one of them. Essentially, my energy is being dispersed in 10 directions and going one yard rather than being dispersed in one direction and going ten yards. It reminds me of this diagram from Essentialism by Greg McKeown:

I came to this reasoning after the bad driving range session because as I was leaving, a tour pro walked up to hit. It was cool to be practicing by that level of game, but as I left, I couldn't help but feel discouraged because I just had a bad practice session. As I was walking to my car, I was emotionally broken, on the verge of tears (that may sound dumb, but I'm being honest and vulnerable) about the fact that I'll never be that good.

That's when I had the revelation: "My desire to be good at a lot of things is keeping me from being great at one." If I had no desire to read, write, develop, or edit videos, I could work a great 9-5 and practice golf every morning and afternoon. But I can't. I want to read and write in the morning and practice developing and taking courses in the evening.

But as I came to discover, that might not be what's holding me back.

After I got home from the range and was struggling with those emotions, I did some research and re-read this great article from Steph Smith titled, "How to Be Great? Just Be Good, Consistently." I've read it before and knew I had to be reminded of some of the core ideas. And I absolutely did.

As you can gather from the title, Steph's main argument is that the key to being great is just being consistently good for a longer than normal amount of time. She encourages readers that every success story you read about or see wasn't formed overnight and more often than not, is the result of years and years of compounding from doing the next right thing.

The entire article is great, but what struck me the most this time was this quote from James Clear about falling in love with the boredom that comes from consistently doing the same thing:

"The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom."- Atomic Habits, James Clear

"Maybe," I thought, "It's not that I'm trying too many things. Maybe it's that I'm expecting world changing results after doing something for only a few months." I started taking development much more seriously around October of 2021 and started playing golf more seriously around September of 2021. When I first started playing, I never used my driver because I couldn't hit it. Fast forward to now, after a few lessons and a lot of practice sessions, I'm hitting it over 215 yards. It's not the most consistent, but I know that I know I can do it, which wasn't true just a few months ago.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, it pains me to admit that I'm not good at something I desire so strongly to be good at--like golf. But I know if I continue letting the embarrassment of going to the range and having a few miss hits in front of people run my life, I'll never have the opportunity to be great. I'll give up before I have the chance to even cross the threshold of "above average."

I can take that same analogy and use it for development. If I let the embarrassment of not being capable of something stop me from learning how to be capable, I'll never be capable. Instead of reflecting back in a few years thinking, "I remember when I didn't know what React was or how to use templating languages, but now I do." I'll look back and think, "It's been two years since I started to learn to code and I have no idea how to use React because I could never get over myself and be okay with the fact that I'm incapable."

So what's the lesson in all this?

I can't be great until I'm good. And I can't be good unless I allow myself to be bad and stick with it. I have to keep taking development courses everyday, even if I feel that other people are so far ahead of me. I have to keep showing up to the golf course and practicing, playing, and taking lessons. I have to be okay with the fact that I'll have some miss-hits, shanks, and embarrassing shots. But if I stick with both of them long enough and wait for the results to compound, I'll be a completely different golfer and developer in five years.

Patience -- forcing myself to be patient with results -- and consistency -- continuing doing what I said I'd do, no matter the results -- are the keys to being good. And until I figure out how to be good, being great isn't even on the table.

And maybe I am trying to do too much. Maybe it's going to take a lot longer to be a great writer, developer, golfer, or video editor if I continue trying to do all of those things. If I dropped one or two, I could advance quicker in the other two or three. But am I willing to make that tradeoff? I don't know yet. And I think that's okay. Until I can honestly say, "Okay, I'm happy with where I am from a golf standpoint, yes I still need to practice but not as intensely", or, until I come to a point where I feel like golf or writing or developing isn't for me, I'll keep practicing. But I can't give up after two months because "I'll never be good enough." That's immature and not realistic.

Make sure you're doing the right things

An essential caveat in Steph's article is to make sure you're not just being consistent, but that you're being consistent doing the right thing. She writes:

There is one thing to clarify: this habit of progression must come with the right inputs. Being consistent with something leading you in the wrong direction, will unsurprisingly lead you in the wrong direction.

If I went to the driving range everyday and hit my driver as hard as I could for a year, I probably wouldn't be any better of a golfer than I am today. Similarly, if I don't try and improve my writing by 1% in each article, never edit, and post the first draft of everything for a year, I most likely won't be a better writer by the end of it. I have to make sure I'm practicing in a way that's proper and will actually make me better, which is an idea for a whole other article.