Listen, you suck at pretty much everything you do, and for your whole life, you will suck at most of what you do. You probably have tried a lot of things and sucked at them so you stayed sucky, which is cool! There might even be something that you actually pursued for a while, like playing basketball or learning to draw or playing guitar, but you probably still suck at those things. It’s okay to suck at things; or at least I hope it is because I suck at A LOT of things. But what separates the people who do things well from the people who suck is the tenacity to succeed multiple times.
I tried skateboarding for a while, and I even keep a little bit of it in my life in the form of longboarding (which is NOT the same as skateboarding no matter what that one guy from college says), but I sort of gave up. I watched so many YouTube videos of how to push off right and the basics of ollying and whatnot, and I even succeeded with a few basic tricks a few times, but I still gave up. I tasted some success and still quit. It isn’t enough to succeed a few times, for your moral or your muscle memory. I’m not a psychologist or professional teacher of any skill, but I believe that you need to do something right twice as many times and twice as often as you mess up for you to have broken the bad habit of failure. So with the olly example, if you screwed it up and didn’t land it just how you should have 28 times then you need to do it right at least 56 times, probably more.
I have taken lessons in various things (an instrument, a sport, others) and one of the things that I don’t understand is when people are working on a skill and trying it over and over and once they succeed once they say “alright, I did it, now I don’t have to work on that anymore” (in more or less words). The clincher comes later when that skill is put to the test and they play the measure wrong or make uneven cuts in the meat or put the wrong spin on the ball. They may be confused and blame the lighting or the knife or the racket when they really ought to blame their laziness and ignorance. Doing something correctly once is not good enough; not even close. Practice over and over and over and over. Then maybe you’ll suck a little less. You can’t be good enough, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. In fact, it means that you absolutely have to try.
I’ve got a lot of trophies, but I haven’t accomplished anything. Sure I participated in a handful of sports and competitions as a kid, and I was thrilled when I got the trophy with my name on it; but all that thrill died when I saw 23 others with that same trophy, most of which, in my opinion, hadn’t worked as hard as I had. There are only one or two accolades that I have received that I am actually proud of and when they come up or I have a moment of self-absorption and brag, people seem only mildly impressed. As their attention fades I try to shock them with how rare the accomplishment is or how hard it is to earn. Still their eyes glaze over as their brain searches for a way to bring the conversation back to be about them. I don’t blame them. I do the same.
Our society has reveled in the idea that everyone is a special flower and deserves endless praise for even the most mundane and mediocre accomplishments. Competing in a middle school spelling bee and getting 7th place; playing a game of football and getting a sack but letting the RB slip by easily 4 times; performing in your studio’s piano recital and playing with reasonable accuracy. These are certainly worth celebrating, and I think it is essential for us to try new things and strive to be successful and get better at our craft, whether it is spelling or tackling or playing piano, but they are attempts, not conquests. They should be looked at as a step in the right direction, but not the end goal.
It is easy to think of yourself as a success if you only look at the positives. Sure you spelled dichotomous and adjudicator correctly, but you missed acquiesce. And you made a nice play that one time after your hand got stepped on and you were fueled by rage, but you forgot to wrap up the tackle and cost the team several dozen yards. And you performed “Appalachian Spring” pretty well, but you missed the scale run in measure 23 that you practiced just enough to get right one time. These are pursuits of greatness, but they have not reached it yet. Parents should praise their kids and tell them they are proud of them; but most everyone else in their lives, especially their teachers/coaches/whatever should constantly expect and demand more. Praise, past a certain point, coddles and restricts ambition.
This does not just apply to children, though it is most evident and harmful at that age. When the only information on a task a person receives is positive they assume that the level they performed the task at is adequate or even above what is expected. I am all for positive reinforcement, and am not suggesting we only speak on weaknesses and areas of failure, but without a clear direction to improve and a sense that improvement is necessary, there will be none.
Praise is overrated and, for me personally, the less I get the more I improve. It makes the rare kernel of approval all the more potent.