Dec 17, 2023

Learning to enjoy trying new things and looking stupid

Learning new languages, sports, and other skills is hard work. You’ll have to put in the hours to get better, step by step. Even if you have a natural inclination toward a specific skill, your brain isn’t designed to excel at, let’s say, freestyle ice skating. You can only get better at something by repeatedly exposing yourself to the uncertainty and thrill of being a beginner.

Adults often have a hard time saying they don’t know and loathe starting new things because the fear of getting ridiculed by society is much greater than not trying it in the first place. Interestingly, kids have learning figured out. They don’t care about the opinions of others, they love learning from others and making mistakes until they get it right. Put differently, learning is a skill we lose over time if we stop embracing it.

Growing (only slightly) older, I’ve had to learn to consciously embrace being a complete beginner (i.e. sucking at something) and working hard to get better.

I did this in my career, learning to build software (my first side projects were incredibly hacky solutions if they worked), writing blog posts (hi), working in an engineering team, and learning the dynamics of different roles interacting in a startup from Pre-Seed to Series B.

In my personal life, I started trying out different sports, including swimming, rock climbing, and skating (inline and ice). Every time I would pick up a new discipline, I’d be back to square one.

Early on, it was easy to just do something that seemed fun (extending video games I played with my friends) without any external incentives or pressure to perform, free to make mistakes and improve. Unbeknownst to me, this was the perfect environment.

Later on, with initial learning success, I unconsciously shifted the goalposts or started comparing myself to others. Don’t get me wrong, getting inspiration is important to prevent getting stuck (and believing you’ve reached the top), but it shouldn’t diminish your own progress. When you think in terms of competition, it’s really hard to appreciate getting from level 0 to 1 when you observe people succeeding on level 10. This is toxic.

The enemy of your growth isn’t that others are better than you at something. It’s that you tell yourself you’re not good enough and stop getting better than your past self. The second you turn a fun or stimulating activity into a fictitious competition against others, you lose.

Even though I know this, I occasionally fall into my own trap. Luckily, I know that I learned the quickest when I was willing to make mistakes and just kept on going.

Learning a new skill is similar in some ways to building a startup. It’s no surprise that how fast you can move and how many mistakes you can make and learn from to then make the next decisions is a good indicator for future success.

I want to end this on a high note. I recently read Adam Grant’s Hidden Potential, which inspired this post. The key takeaway from the book is that most skills aren’t predetermined by nature, they’re mastered in thousands of iterations of trying, failing, and improving. Whether you’ve been eager to pick up a new language, sports discipline, or other skill, if you embrace looking stupid for a while and make sure learning stays fun, you’ve got the best odds to succeed.