Think of a new hobby you’d like to get good at. Let’s pick woodworking. If you’re like most people, you’d like to be good at creating physical objects with your hands. There’s just something really cool about being able to do this, getting the admiration of your friends and family, maybe even selling your pieces some day at an art fair. You start out by watching lots of How-to videos on YouTube. Some of these inspire you, so you think you can do it. You run out to Home Depot and a local artist’s store and buy your raw materials. You begin. You begin, only you’re not very good out of the gate. Why would you expect to be? You’re just a beginner. In fact, now that you think about it, you suck. It is harder than you thought. Now, what do you do?
A lot of people quit at this stage. The emotional turmoil of embarrassment — even private embarrassment — is too much for them to take and so they quit. They can’t take creations turned into abominations of the like that Homer Simpson would create, so they quit. But what if you stuck with it? What if you worked on getting better? What if you dug in your heels and persisted? You went out and bought more wood, more dyes, more paint and kept going, kept honing, kept whittling away at it, kept creating.
You have permission to suck at this. It’s OK.
You know what you did? You gave yourself permission to suck. Few people do this. It’s hard. It requires a shift of your perspective. It isn’t, I suck at this. It is, I’m having fun at this. You won’t say you suck if you’re having fun at it.
One of the unfortunate things we do as adults is hate on ourselves for sucking at things. We beat ourselves up. We say, Man, I suck at that! And then we quit and avoid the activity going forward. We dismiss our efforts as fruitless. I suck at math, so don’t ask me to help you with fractions. Or, math was never my strong suit. Ask someone else to help. Or, I’m terrible at golf. I can’t play with the boss.
It takes quiet, stoic and genuine confidence to suck at an activity and be OK with that. To keep going despite the activity’s difficulty. To persist in the face of adversity.
Writing is a great example. Many people think they want to write. Everybody should write. Everybody can write. But few believe in their ability to write. And yet even fewer write at a certain time for a certain time block every day no matter what. This last part is key: writing is a discipline, like working out or running. Writing is this: each day, I wake up, turn on the coffee maker, and hit the laptop and go. I get after it. There is no dilly-dallying. There is no thinking about it. There is no pondering. There is only doing: writing. Right here, right now. Nothing else matters at this hour. Go. And that’s writing.
If you take an anthropologist’s role and be the observer for most people who claim to be writers or who claim to want to write, you’ll find that they lolly-gag, they mess around, they putter, they hem-and-haw, they metaphorically clear their throats before they do any writing. By the time they get around to the actual writing part, distraction has taken them off track and before they realize it, they’re on social media or some news web site. So much for the time block dedicated to writing. Tomorrow, they’ll be back on track, ready to write. So we claim…
I say this not to make fun of people who do this or who are aspiring writers. I say this because this used to be me. I went through this. I went through this stage of dilly-dallying and lolly-gagging and throat-clearing before writing as a beginner and then again as an intermediate writer. It was tough. You think you really want something, think you’ve got it figured out, that you’ve got a voice, that you’ve got something to say, and then you find yourself staring at the blank page in Word for 30 minutes. You feel like a fish out of water: confused, staring blankly at the screen, trying to breathe normally while wondering what’s happening.
You keep going.
The only way out is through. You persist. You write no matter how ugly and disgusting the things are that you write. You keep going even though the things you just wrote, you just created out of thin air, are repellent. People read your words and they bristle. The things you write make them wince, like they just watched a gangster pistol-whip a rival.
Nevertheless, you keep going. As Steven Pressfield says, “Like a professional, you sit down and do your work.” No matter what else is going on around you, you bust out the MacBook Pro, fire up Evernote and you get after it. Even if there is a shitstorm of activity going on around you, you write at this place, at this time, for this amount of time every single day. That’s the professional discipline. That’s how you work it until and beyond the day you get paid. You don’t stop. Ever.
By the way, once you get good and you’re looking back on your previous work, there’s no reason to be embarrassed by it or to mock it. That’s where you were. This is where you are. You’ve evolved. You’ve improved. You’ve got a wonderful story now, a story of growth, of overcoming adversity, of persistence in the face of adversity, of succeeding despite the fact that few believed in you and your abilities. Your story can inspire others. You could even mentor others if that’s what you want to do. But there’s no need to shun or to hide your early works. You are on the Hero’s Journey, clawing your way to the creative Promised Land.