Photo cred Amelia Kramer
Everyone can relate to that feeling of irrational disappointment when you are not immediately good at something. During one of those late-night, self-reflection moments recently, I realized that this is a pattern for me. If I’m not forced to do something (like a class), I easily give up because I hate being bad at things. Don’t we all? The thing is, if you give up when you’re bad at it, you’ll never be good at it. And that’s not always easy to swallow.
So what is the key? Habit formation. If the way to get better is to keep going, having a habit will keep you at it.
According to a study in the British Journal of General Practice, habits are a way to perform actions automatically, based on context clues and association rather than external conscious thought. If an action is externalized, as in you have to think about doing it, you are less likely to maintain your motivation and interest, and the action will probably not be performed for the long-term (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012).
Easier said than done, I know. The same study also gives some steps to break down how to form a productive habit, as follows:
- Set a goal! (I want to be able to run two miles without stopping.)
- Think about a small step you can do every day to work towards that goal. (I will run as far as I can without stopping.)
- Schedule a consistent time every day to perform the action. (I will run as far as I can without stopping before class every morning at 9 a.m.)
- Stick with it! (When it gets to be 9 a.m., get outside and run!)
- 10 weeks later, it should be automatic. (You may find you’re putting on your running shoes without thinking about it.)
- Woohoo! You now have a productive habit!
(Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012)
This doesn’t make it any easier to be ‘bad’ at something in the beginning stages though, does it? Working hours and hours on a drawing and realizing it’s all slanted or tripping over the soccer ball the first time you play doesn’t exactly feel ‘nice,’ and your immediate thought, if you’re anything like me, would be something like ‘well, we’re never doing this again.’ That kind of mindset is not helpful. How can you grow if you’re stuck within the confines of what you have always known or are naturally good at?
You have to be able to bounce back after that first failure… and the second failure… and the third. According to an article in Psychology Today, which outlines a study in Clinical Psychology Review on failure and resilience, there are three factors that contribute to being able to brush off failure and continue: self-esteem, attribution of failure, and perfectionism (Whitbourne, 2017).
Let’s break that down briefly. Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself, and higher self-esteem leads to higher resilience due to feeling capable of success. Attribution of failure is a bit more abstract, but basically you are more likely to be resilient if you see your mistakes as due to external factors as opposed to internal factors. (Basically, you don’t take failure as a measure of personal worth.) Lastly, perfectionism is a quality of holding yourself to a high standard, and while this can be helpful sometimes, mistakes are bound to happen. Nobody’s perfect. (Did she just reference Hannah Montana? She did… she did.)
It all comes down to realizing that failure is a natural part of trying something new and not taking the beginning mistakes personally. Combining the ideas of habit formation and resilience could look something like repeating a mantra to yourself after doing something you’ve just started at. Maybe try something like “I can do this. I will get better. I am not perfect.” to remind yourself that failure is just a side effect of growth.
Being ‘bad’ at something means that you’ve tried something new, flexed a muscle you haven’t used as much, strayed from your normal routine. Cheers to you! Keep it up! Remember that mistakes are just helpful feedback.