Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future
This book came into my life at a perfect time.
As I continue to study change and do the work of becoming better at stuff, I have often run into a familiar wall; I just don’t like being bad at something. Even as I remind myself that I can’t resist difficult experiences or cling to fun times; even as I know that it takes time to tear down bad habits or build good ones, I often have trouble powering through these periods of sucktitude in my life.
Be Bad First reminds us that virtually all adults don’t like feeling incompetent, but it also provides an answer. It doesn’t stop with merely enduring difficulty; it shows the reader how to embrace the messy process of becoming better and demonstrates why this healthy attitude helps us to get better much faster. It’s a quick and easy read and below, I share my key takeaways:
- First, the “bad” news: more than ever before, adults must learn new skills in order to survive. For centuries, children began training to do something in their teens and more or less did that same job for their entire lives. From birth to death, these basic skills didn’t change much if they changed at all.
In the 1980s, Buckminster Fuller estimated that human knowledge, as of AD 1, doubled in the span of 1500 years, then again 250 years later and then again in 1900; now, it is estimated that the collective of human knowledge doubles in a matter of months.
This means that now, more than ever before, what we do and how we do it is changing at a rapid pace. We have no choice but to accept that we will be required to learn new skills.
- Then, the good news: adults are perfectly capable of becoming proficient in new skills.. It was once assumed that we did most of our learning as children and that by the time we reached adulthood, our brains were pretty much set in their ways. In the past few decades, neuroscience has proven these ideas wrong; a child’s brain is slightly more elastic, but an adult is very capable of learning and mastering virtually anything. (For more on this topic, I recommend Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.)
This is important because desire for mastery (or even being “good enough”) is one thing which helps us to power through difficult learning curves.
- We love mastering things. Why do we solve crossword puzzles, play Angry Birds or devote hours of time to hobbies which are functionally useless achievements? One simple answer: human beings have an innate desire to master things. (This is discussed in greater detail in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.)
- Begin with monitoring your self-talk. If you’ve never meditated, then the idea of observing your “self-talk” or inner monologue may seem a bit foreign to you. (I also love The Untethered Soul for a masterful exploration of this concept.) Here’s the basic idea:
Set your timer for one minute — ideally in a quiet room — and simply observe your train of thought.
As thoughts pop into your head, your mind follows them one by one, until a different, “more compelling” thought grabs hold and takes the lead. You may have started off thinking about something you had to do today, or something your child said earlier, or a headache, or a particular sound in the distance; the possibilities are infinite. As the minute ticked on, different thoughts entered the picture; you followed some, ignored others and eventually each thought was replaced by another.
Here’s the interesting thing; we tend to see these thoughts as “ourselves” and of course it is our brain producing them. But it’s also our brain that observes them or “listens” to them, almost as if it they are two distinct entities having a continuous conversation in your mind.
A wandering mind is harmless enough, but here’s where it matters in terms of getting better at something: our brains will usually put up a fight when faced with a challenge. We effectively talk ourselves out of it, rationalizing (“this is stupid”) or criticizing (“I’m horrible, I hope no one is watching”). The problem is that these thoughts are often wrong or in the very least unhelpful, yet we buy into them impulsively, often without questioning them.
The good news is that we can practice observing them and choosing more accurate or more helpful thoughts instead. (More on this below.)
Managing our self-talk is critical at every step of the process. Erika describes it as a “4 R’s” process: recognition (simply noticing it), recording (writing them down helps us to view them as an impartial observer), rethinking (contemplating and substituting these thoughts with more accurate or helpful thoughts) and repeating (building any new habit is a matter of repetition over time).
- Aspire to be better. Genuinely wanting something is the first step to achieving it. We all know someone who “wants” to lose weight or learn the guitar or improve his marriage, but the reality is that they really don’t “want” those things badly enough to actually do something about it. You probably see this in your own life, too. (I know I do.)
If you genuinely want the change in question, great; you’re already on your way. But it may also be true that you should learn something (a new software system at work, eating healthier food, etc.) but you don’t actually want to do it at all.
We often assume that the mind wants what the mind wants and there is no changing it, but the truth is that we can shape our thinking; the most successful people do it regularly. The key is to identify the real benefit(s) and imagine yourself in that future; when does it occur, what does it look like and how does it feel?
If you want to be healthy and fit; what does that future self look like and how does it feel? Is it increased confidence, feeling lighter on your feet, being more powerful or capable?
If you want to tackle that new software product; what does that future self look like and how does it feel? Is it a greater sense of pride and independence, of being more valuable or of financial security?
The more specific your imagination, the more powerful these thoughts will be in motivating you to get started and persist in the face of difficulties (which, as we’ve already acknowledged, are inevitable!)
- Develop a neutral self-awareness. In order to take the next step, we have to know where we stand; what do we already do well and what do we need to do better? It’s all too easy to overrate our abilities or sell ourselves short. It’s often difficult to see ourselves in a fair and impartial light
It helps to simply begin with a question directed to yourself; is my self-talk accurate? What facts do I actually possess? Then, it helps to solicit family, friends, co-workers or professionals who are good sources of feedback; namely, people who (1) see you clearly, (2) want the best for you, and (3) are willing to be honest (all three are important and of course, you have to welcome their feedback and receive it positively).
- Nurture endless curiosity. Any parent can attest that young children are endlessly curious about everything. Unfortunately, many of us have largely lost this valuable skill as adults (it’s also understandable; various social pressures contribute beginning in our teenaged years), but it’s also true that we can re-acquire our childlike wonder.
Erika notes that “curious” self-talk often begins with asking why, how or I wonder; words driven by a need to understand and master something, which is arguably a biological need as important as food and sex. When we observe our self-talk as “anti-curious” (“this is boring”, “who cares?” etc.) we can revise it. Finally, it helps to look for connections between new experiences and things which we are already passionate about.
- Finally, be willing to be bad first. The key to accepting your state of “badness” begins with merely accepting it, while believing that you will improve and “bridging” from what you’re already good at (finding associations with existing skills which can help move you forward).
- What can kindergartners teach us about being bad first? In a fun segment, Erika tells the story of the marshmallow challenge, an experiment in which a team is given eighteen minutes to construct the tallest possible structure with twenty pieces of spaghetti, a meter of tape, a meter of string and a marshmallow. Its author, Peter Skillman, has conducted this study with groups of engineers, business school graduates and many highly skilled adults from all over the world.
Fascinatingly, a group of kindergartners bested them all. Read that again; a group of five and six year olds obliterated these highly skilled adults at a simple game. How?
For one, Peter notes, the kids didn’t waste time with “status transactions” (determining who plays what role or deferring to “leadership”) but more to the point, they simply dove right in and got started, unrestrained by fear of failure or looking silly in front of their peers.
Throughout the book, Erika returns to the example of Michelangelo being commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel; as it turns out, this is a more relatable example than you might at first think.
Michelangelo — despite his already considerable fame and expertise as a sculptor — was reluctant to take on the project; he wasn’t, by his own admission, a skilled frescoist and he didn’t share the Pope’s vision for the work. Throughout the project, . In fact, when complimented on his work, he was known to reply “I am still learning”.
The point (as I read it) is that life requires even the most accomplished amongst us to step outside of our comfort zones and embrace new challenges. In these times, attitude is everything. Do we approach with humility and a willingness to embrace the messy work of becoming better at a key skill?
I mentioned at the beginning that this book came into my life at a perfect time. For many years, I simply avoided doing most things that I wasn’t good at it. I hemmed, I hawed, I made every excuse under the sun; I convinced myself that I didn’t care.
And to be sure, I think that sometimes, it makes sense to simply embrace your strengths and not devote time to your weaknesses; particularly if those weaknesses genuinely are not relevant to achieving what you most want in life.
But for most of us, the ideas explored in this book truly can help us to become more happier and more successful, if we are simply willing to be bad first.