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You Have Permission To Suck

Children don’t seem to give up no matter what they do.

It’s remarkable, considering they rarely get anything right. Their movements are awkward. They can’t write, draw, or talk properly. It’s almost impossible for them not to mess up whatever they are doing.

I dread the thought that I was ever like that. Everything you do is a brand new opportunity to embarrass yourself. But occasionally, the child’s struggle is endearing. They are pesky and persistent even though they are terrible at what they do.

I think we need to go back to being children again.

The Picture Of Perfectionism

Children are amateurs in every sense of the word.

They are enthusiasts who do something for the love of it. They have no social awareness or any model of success. In their minds, there’s nothing they should or shouldn’t do.

In contrast, we focus on perfectionism. We have an idea of how things should be like, and we get upset and disappointed when things don’t go our way. As though we somehow can — or deserve to — get things right when we are inexperienced and haven’t put the repetitions in.

We set ourselves up to fail with impossibly high standards. After awhile, we stop trying altogether.

Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of the popular show, This American Life, has something to say to beginners:

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.

Ira Glass talks about creative work, but I think it’s applicable to just about any field. It’s relevant to anyone who is just starting out.

We want to build the biggest and baddest thing even though we’ve never laid a brick. We see the highlight reels but never the late night shoot-outs in the empty gym. The exposure we’ve had works against us because it tells us anything short of a slam dunk is a miss.

Our inclination towards perfectionism inadvertently becomes the killer of hopes and dreams.

Permission To Suck

Nobody has ever thought of having high standards as a negative. But the reality is that such expectations prevent us from doing our work.

What we need to understand is that we have permission to suck. We’ve been trained to tie our self-worth to our work and accomplishments. The fear is that any work that falls short of perfect becomes an unflattering critique of our abilities.

Nobody has articulated this better than Steven Pressfield in The War of Art. He knew of this fear and warned us against it.

“The amateur, on the other hand, over-identifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this. Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and over-terrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyses him.”

We are not our work. The distinction between what we have managed to do and what we are must be made. Without separating ourselves from our accomplishments, we will never be able to venture into uncharted waters.

The only way to overcome the Resistance and start producing work is to give yourself permission to suck. We must produce terrible work at the beginning in the hopes that we will eventually improve with practice and volume. The only way out is through.

Love For The Craft

A gap between the apprentice and the master craftsman exists for virtually any skill. The former has the taste, but it is the latter who has both taste and skill.

What separates the two is the number of repetitions put in. The craftsman has given himself permission to suck — to put out ugly and terrible work — before he finally attains mastery. In between, he goes through the pain and frustration of recognising beauty, but being unable to create it.

There’s plenty we can learn from children here. They do things because they are curious; they do things for the love of it. They keep trying, and eventually they succeed.

We just need to remember how to be children again. As we persist like them, the gap between where we are and we want to be will eventually close.