The Myth of Being Bad at Success

If at first you don't succeed, accept that you're no good at this and never will be.Photo courtesy Inspirational message by me.

Around the time I started Seattle CoderDojo, the Atlantic published a piece titled “The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’.” Boiled down, it’s about how we find ourselves confronted with people who are better than us at something and how we convince ourselves it’s because they have an innate talent we don’t have. Usually it’s just that they’ve had more exposure, more practice, and often more interest. But because we convince ourselves mastery of that thing boils down to talent, rather than hard work, we start to believe that we can’t master it and we create a personal mythology of being bad at something.

But I’ve been seeing a meme around the net about “10 Things That Require Zero Talent” and I believe that it is really just a sad way of (un)intentionally making people who aren’t currently good at these things create this same kind of self-limiting personal mythology. Here’s the list:

  1. Being on time
  2. Work ethic
  3. Effort
  4. Body language
  5. Energy
  6. Attitude
  7. Passion
  8. Being coachable
  9. Doing extra
  10. Being prepared

The idea is that these 10 things are stuff that anyone can do without talent. But much like math, playing the piano, or writing computer programs, these things require training, strategies, and practice.

For example, let’s take being on time. Are you always naturally on time or do you have behaviors and habits that keep you on time? For most people, it’s the latter. For most people, it requires planning, budgeting their time, and often setting alarms or reminders. And all that planning, budgeting, and setting alarms/reminders is hard at first, but then gets practiced over and over until it becomes habit.

Think about packing your lunch before you go to bed so you don’t have to do it in the morning. It gives you a cushion in the morning so there’s less drama and more calm preparation. It is also a learned behavior. It is a habit you get into through practice.

Imagine someone who has never been taught strategies for staying on time. They grew up in a house where everything was always hectic and last minute. They were always rushing everywhere, but never seeming to get anywhere on time. They never had the strategies of being on time modeled for them. They never had them taught to them. And in that chaotic atmosphere, even if they discovered these behaviors, it was difficult to practice them.

So when someone says “being on time doesn’t take any talent,” it tells them that they can’t even do a thing that doesn’t require talent. They think that this is something you simply decide to do and if you can’t do it, there’s something inherently wrong with you. They beat themselves up, feel like they don’t deserve to succeed, and they create a mythology of being bad at success.

Some people will be thinking that this is heading toward me proposing some touchy-feely, give everyone participation trophies kind of thing. No. There’s nothing wrong with the list. There’s nothing wrong with expecting these skills from high-performers. We just need to approach them as trainable skills and the way to do that is simply to change the title of the list from “10 Things That Require Zero Talent” to “10 Skills You Can Learn For Success.” Presenting them as things they can learn to do, instead of things they should already be able to do, changes the context. Being bad at success is a temporary state that can be corrected, not a part of your core being.

The trick of defeating personal myths like these is convincing yourself that, with practice, you can become good; maybe not one of the best in the world, but you can move far away from being bad at it.

If you’re not good at something you want to be good at, research some strategies to build strength in it, and then practice those strategies every day until they become habits. Do one or two at a time and build skill upon skill. You’ll get there.

And for those who are good at these things, think about how you can share these skills, share your strategies, share the good habits that have made you successful. Then get in the habit of helping others beat their limiting personal myths and become good at success.

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