walking on custard

It’s Okay to Be Bad at Things

3 Feb 2020

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” – G. K. Chesterton

Last week I was overcome with paralyzing guilt after slightly miscooking a sausage sandwich.

Don’t worry—the sandwich was delicious. But even as I was putting it together, a critical internal voice was opining that the pan had been too hot, the butter not melty enough, the onions insufficiently caramelized…

I could have brought a Perfect Sandwich into this world. But I was making an imperfect one instead. 

And I felt bad. (At least, until I ate it. Like I said, it was delicious.)

I don’t know about you, but I often hold myself back out of fear of imperfection—despite the evidence of my eyes that the world is crammed with imperfect art, products, situations, and even people. (And yes, I certainly include myself in the category of “imperfect people”—along with pretty much everyone else.)

So today I want to celebrate the art of Doing Stuff Badly.

A bad deal is often better than no deal

I always have an idea in my head of the final, “complete” outcome of whatever I’m trying. The prizewinning novel. The sparklingly clean kitchen. The target marathon time.

But actually, none of these perfect outcomes need to be achieved. For all of these activities, simply trying at all would be an improvement.

A ten minute run is better than no run. An imperfect short story which exists is better than a perfect one which doesn’t. A cobbled-together plate of leftovers is better than no dinner. A half-cleaned kitchen is better than a completely messy one.

…need I go on? If you’re struggling to get started on something that feels big and unachievable, ask yourself if even the smallest possible version would be better than nothing. In a choice between a perfect reality which doesn’t exist, and an imperfect one which does, there’s only ever one winner.

Being bad is the first step to becoming good

In Star Wars, the path to the dark side is famously a one-way slippery slope. But in real life, we often have to be bad to become good. (At least, when it comes to skills—this is not applicable to moral badness, which we’ll have to save for another discussion.)

Very recently, I took up swing dancing… by which I mean I have attended a single class. 

My feet spent most of the class doing their own thing; even maintaining a very simple 1-2-3-4 pattern required constant concentration. As soon as I attempted to do literally anything else, my feet gave up and began behaving randomly, which necessitated many embarrassed apologies to each new partner that came my way.

But this is okay. Nobody is born knowing how to swing dance.

Like almost all skills, dancing requires willingness to be bad at it first. You can’t become a master piano player without being a terrible one first.

Of course, some things do require expertise. Obviously, brain surgery, plumbing, medicine, flying planes and building skyscrapers are all activities which require an extremely high standard before we even begin. Which is why people studying these kinds of skills have special ways to train and practices to adhere to while they’re learning.

When our actions have real-world consequences, we need to be careful.

But as long as nothing is on the line, let go of the outcome, and go for it.

What can you do badly today?

Is there an activity you feel drawn to, or a project you’ve been putting off, or even just a day-to-day chore that you never seem to get done?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Would doing it a bit be better than not doing it at all? If so, go do it—a bit!
  • Are you willing to be bad at it now, if it means being better at it later?

The only truly important question is “is anything really on the line if you do it imperfectly? Really?!” 

If you answer yes, then your hesitation is well-justified. If not… don’t let imperfection hold you back. There’s a reason Chesterton never said “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth ruminating over endlessly until you just give up because you’ll never do it perfectly.”

Personally, I’ve never done anything perfectly in my life. Why start now?! 

Let’s do something badly today… and then, maybe, do it better tomorrow.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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