I tried something new and I’m terrible and I love it.

I tried something new and I’m terrible and I love it.

Earlier this summer, my family joined the local rock climbing gym. Two of my kids were especially interested, and it’s one of those rare remaining places where a “family membership” costs the same whether there are two or ten in your family, so we all go, sometimes.

I am terrible at rock climbing. And I’m not even climbing real rocks, but plastic boulders attached to the wall in a way that is supposed to be relatively easy to climb, easy for beginners.

It is not easy for me.

But my kids love it, and if they’re going to go, somebody has to take them. And when I do, I get my (super uncomfortable) climbing shoes and give it a try. I started climbing because it would be good for me: I spend hours each day working at the computer or microphone, and it’s not great for my body. If an exact opposite for hunching over a computer exists, it just might be stretching out like a spider against a bouldering wall and attempting to move.

I kept climbing because I found it strangely satisfying, even though I’m terrible. It’s fun to try something new. It’s good for my body, and I enjoy the mental challenge of puzzling out the routes to the top of the wall.

But the most surprising thing?  I actually love being terrible.

Unlike everything else I do all day, nobody in that climbing gym expects me to be competent—let alone good. I have only the smallest idea what I’m doing, and that’s fine. I have total freedom to screw up, to fall down, to spend my hour at the gym scaling the kids’ runs (if I can, because honestly, my 8-year-old is so much better than I am). I have total freedom to be the worst in the room at this one thing, and it’s fine.

It’s been good for my soul and weirdly gratifying to begin at the beginning, at the very start of the the learning curve, where my progress—for once—is obvious.

Every time I go, I am obviously better, stronger, smarter about making my holds. For once, I can see the results of my practice, not cumulative over months and years, but from one hour spent climbing to the next.

And even though I’m better than I was when I started, I’m still terrible, and I think I like it that way. I’ve been philosophizing about how perhaps everyone needs something in their life they can be just plain awful at. One area where everyone else does it better, where they have complete permission to stink, where they can experience the enjoyment of the start of the learning curve.

(I compared notes on this epiphany with a friend, who had recently found her own venue of terribleness, and was loving it. Is this a realization all women come to as they approach forty? We don’t know, but we’re loving it.)

Do you have something in your life you are absolutely terrible at? Do you like it that way? I would love to hear about the venue of YOUR terribleness, how you found it, and how it’s working out for you in comments. 

P.S. I’ve written about this issue a lot over the years. You may like: the 100-hour rule, back to the beginning, and three little words to overcome perfectionism.

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  1. Susanne says:

    Hi Anne, I love this! I have never thought about this before. A few years ago I accepted the fact that I am no housekeeper. Our house has a constant “lived in” look and I am finally OK with that. It is relatively clean nowhere near a disaster, but almost never spotless and tidy from one end to the other. I was completely validated when a coworker came by, took a quick look around and said, “Man, this makes me feel so much better about myself.” It is our reality and I feel so much better having accepted it!

  2. Well, I am now apparently terrible at bike riding because I WRECKED on vacation and had to go to urgent care. But you’re right–such freedom in having something I’m not supposed to be best at.

  3. Lindsay says:

    I tried that earlier this year as well! The thing I absolutely loved about the climbing gym is that absolutely no one (shockingly to me) cares about how terrible of a climber you are. They are just so happy to have you there with them. What a great feeling to be accepted no matter what. I haven’t made it back recently, but I will one day.

  4. Cheryl says:

    Just the other day I saw an interview with a high school student named Gerald Hodges who had joined the swim team even though he didn’t know how to swim because: “If I couldn’t handle not being good at something, then how could I consider myself a successful person?”

  5. Millie says:

    Hi Anne, loved this. I’m not good at pilates but I love it. I look weird trying to do the moves. However, I can see and feel the small changes in my body. I’m hooked and will continue to try. I feel so much better after each class.
    Millie

  6. Susan Dennison says:

    Oh yes, there are many things I love to do, but I’m really awful at! I love to sing and dance; I’m appalling bad at singing, so bad, people have told me I throw them off key. I can hold my own at dancing, but I’ll never be as graceful as I wish. I took up learning to play the ukulele last year because I now live in a condo that is way to small for the piano I grew up playing.
    At 62, it is freeing to be a neophyte at something. I love the lack of pressure to be proficient or even good – I have to be that every day at my job. Perhaps this is why I’ve always found learning new things so exhilarating. I also have a long list of things I want to learn.

  7. Missy says:

    Hi Anne – About 2 years ago, I walked into a CrossFit “box” (as they are affectionately called)expecting a good workout, but began traveling on a transformative personal journey which encompasses so much more than just fitness. I have faced many of my own issues, such as fear of failure and perfectionism. I am trying new things (I climbed a rope for the first time ever and can now do multiple rope climbs with a weight vest on!), setting goals and working months and months to achieve them (hello patience and persistence!), and signing up to complete against others and in front of others before I know what I will even have to do (talk about feeling vulnerable!). The skills and character traits I’ve developed in the box have overflowed into my everyday life and have made me a better version of myself. This was certainly not what I expected when I signed up for that “fitness class” 2 years ago!

  8. Jill Foley says:

    I’ve had this same experience with climibing! My family’s interest in climbing comes and goes, so I haven’t been consistent enough over the years to get even slightly good at it. But it’s fun. I’m not sure if I’m currently terrible at anything…I’ll have to find something to be terrible at!

  9. Megan says:

    I am a climber and it is wonderful. Don’t compare yourself to the kids. I see the little ones at the gym all the time doing stuff I will never be able to do. I think it is because they haven’t really learned fear yet. They don’t know about having to take time to heal and so they feel a freedom to just go for things that I can’t convince my mind to do anymore as I get older. I love that it is a work out for both my mind and my body. My doctor says it is also good for our bones. Strength training is important for our bone health and this seems like a much more fun method than lifting weights at they gym surrounded by those intimidating guys lifting huge weights.

  10. Janean says:

    Anne, my first reaction was, “You only have ONE thing that you’re terrible at?” Let’s just say that I have MORE. 😉

    Your post led me to think about the grammar stage of classical education. We schooled via Classical Conversations and it’s founder, Leigh Bortins, always talks about how any learner, child or adult, approaches any new subject as a grammar student. A grammar student learns the terms of the subject (the vocabulary), the history of the subject (the when), the science (the how), etc. So, take rock-climbing. You started by learning what the harness was called and the name for the clippy thing, the carabiner. Then, knowing you, you maybe read a book about it (history). As you progressed, you figured out the holds (the science). You moved through the grammar stage and maybe you’re still in it. Although, you’re questioning, which makes me suspect the emergence of the dialectic. 😉 I know you know this because you classically schooled, too, and studied under SWB herself!

    I’m just starting blogging and I feel incredibly inept. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, because it’s been around for a while and it seems like everyone knows how to do it. I’m trying to remind myself that it’s ok that I missed that wave and that I don’t know how to do it. I’m in the grammar stage. I’m learning. I try to remind myself of all the other hard things that I’ve learned how to do and that now am quite proficient in. I remind myself that there are others who have gone before me who can light the way, namely, other ‘students’ who are now in the rhetorical stage, who can share and teach what they have learned. Enjoy your terribleness, because it’s certain not to last long. 😉

    • Hey Janean! We did three years of CC and I still think in terms of the three stages of learning too! Well put! (I had a blog for years and *still* felt like a newbie! Keep at it! So much to learn!)

      • Janean says:

        Thanks for the encouragement, Sheila! CC really did help me rethink how we learn as people of all ages. I’ve been able to be (a little) more patient with myself in these situations. In terms of the blog, I do panic with all the *tech* aspects of it, because it’s like a foreign language. I’m reasonably tech competent, but still, it’s a whole other THING. I ordered one of those blogging for dummies books and it arrived yesterday. It’s seriously like 3” thick. 😳 But, I’ll plug along. 😂 Once the kids go back to school, I have a chance of a complete thought. 😁 Thanks!

  11. I went rock-climbing with my kid’s second-grade class; I declined to go up, knowing I could get up but not down. It was on a real cliff, outdoors. And quite high.
    I am terrible at running. In high school, I got recruited by some friends to join the track team. The coach, seeing how flexible I was, had high hopes. I came in last in every race I ran, except for the ones where the other school didn’t have a runner and all I had to do to score was to finish. When I was in my 20s, I ran a 10K and came in second to last. I haven’t gotten better, but I go running most days. It gets me outside. It gives me a cardio workout. It strengthens my bones. It gets in a lot of steps/calories burned in a relatively short amount of time. I can’t say I love it, but I love how I feel when I do it regularly.

  12. Laurel Bandi says:

    I appreciate all of your honesty, effort and humor! Thank you Anne and all of the women who commented!! I am a quilter and have been around fabric all my life. This year, in order to stretch my brain and meet new women, I joined a knitting group and I’m attempting to knit! I don’t know how to work with yarn, I make tons of mistakes, but with the help of a very patient teacher and a very sweet group of women, I am learning and I am really enjoying it. I read this quote and it makes me smile ” You can teach an old dog new tricks and this old dog wants to learn” 🙂

  13. Keri says:

    I am a terribly slow skier that has no desire to ski really fast, but I love skiing. My family is amazed at how much I enjoy being out there & never progressing beyond green slopes. We have an instructor that works with us every year when we travel to Colorado that says my skill level is quite proficient & I am capable of higher level skiing but I am quite content to just enjoy the scenery & the views at my turtle speed.

  14. Edie says:

    Thanks for the great post. I started baking terrible bread a few years ago. I committed to learning how to make bread and my family was then committed to eating my lackluster, half-risen loaves. I kept at it because I loved the process, even though the end results were less than stellar. Over time I’ve gotten better but I’m still not consistent. My kids still put on their best impressions of Paul Hollywood to tell me my loaf is “underbaked and slightly raw in the middle.” But I find few things more meditative than kneading bread so I keep at it. For me, it doesn’t matter that I’m not a great baker, even though I’ve gotten way better with practice. I do it because I love the transformative process when dough is under my fingers, even if no one is crazy about the result. I guess I don’t care as much about being awful as much as I care about doing something that brings me joy, which is liberating.

  15. RA says:

    I learned to ride a bicycle 4 years ago (when I was safely past 30), and while I am not TERRIBLE at it, I am not good. I’m so wobbly, I can only passably control where/when I stop, and I am terrified to bike in car traffic. But I’m doing it! And every time I manage it, I feel humbled by the opportunity to keep learning something that I had to learn from scratch.

  16. Elsie says:

    I so relate to this! I am terrible at knitting. Absolutely horrible. I’m slow, my stitches are uneven, and I can’t keep a gauge to save my life. I’ve been knitting for years and I can see improvement but I will probably never master the skill. Nevertheless, I persist. I keep coming back. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it but I never stop trying. Also, nobody expects me to very good which is wonderfully freeing. I am free to make scarves with holes and socks that should be the same size but are in fact two wildly different sizes. It is glorious. When I was younger, I would get frustrated with my incredibly slow progress but now (as I approach 40) I embrace being terrible.

  17. Laura says:

    This reminds me of the GK Chesterton quote: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” He was advocating for amateurs and hobbyists. I have always loved that thought!

  18. Alaina says:

    I can completely relate! When I was in high school they needed another person for the diving team to round out the roster. I joined the team and learned how to dive (somewhat), but never could master the reverse dives. As a student who always tried to get good grades and do everything perfectly, it was an amazing experience for me to stand up in front of everyone and perform a dive I knew was wrong and be scored with zeroes on a “failed dive.” I did this over and over again throughout the season. That experience shaped me more than all the A’s and perfect scores on other things every did, and I’m so proud of myself for joining that team.

  19. Angela says:

    This may be why karaoke and roller skating are so much fun. I mean, a few people are really good at it but mostly, people are terrible. Sometimes, the worse the better!

  20. Hayley says:

    Love this! I love climbing too. So many life lessons – looking forward to taking my littles and for all of us to stretch out of our comfort zones!

  21. I just sent this to my husband! He hates being bad at stuff, which is why he never learned and instrument. (With any new think he has trouble getting past the sucking phase.)
    He just noted to me that you and he have the same Myers-Briggs personality type: INFP. But he’s a 4w5 on the Enneagram and you are a 9. I wonder how that affects your willingness to be bad at things. 🙂

  22. Michelle Wilson says:

    I do Cross Fit-the sport of buff, beautiful 20 somethings. I am the oldest, slowest, fattest one in the place and I love it so much! It is really hard. The great thing for me about CF is I am only competing against myself. Can’t do a pull-up….let’s modify it so you still get the same workout. I do CF because I am not married and have no children, its gonna keep me independent-every push up is helping me get up off the floor when I fall at 80. The thing that I have learned about being terrible is that in order to do CF, I really have to be okay with being terrible and not caring how I look to others, etc. I have brought several friends with me to try it out and no one wants to go back-they are too embarrassed-they don’t like to look bad. So, it is me and the 20 year olds! The biggest compliment that I get is someone asking me to talk to their mom/dad about CF.

  23. Juhli says:

    So true! I am in the midst of taking private swimming lessons (with no other adults just lots of little kids) at my city pool because although I do know how to swim I couldn’t swim a lap without swallowing water and hyperventilating. I am enjoying being a learner again at 68 and am getting better but have a long way to go to have it mastered. It is liberating.

  24. Melissa Gerber says:

    I have been terrible at so many things that I when I do become competent or even (dare I say it) excel at something I am often surprised. Being good at something takes time. Talent is always a factor but it takes practice and perseverance. Rarely is someone great the first, second, third time. I had a friend who loved to play basketball. He was short and not very good at the game, but every weekend, rain or shine, he was on the court. He even arranged games, booked courts, and got others involved. Love the things you do in your live and stop putting labels on them (“I’m terrible at this!”) Everyone was a beginner at some point. Now, if I could just take my own advice!

  25. Michelle says:

    I am exceptionally lousy at pretty much anything physical. Grace is not in my vernacular, as my husband frequently tells me (an accomplished athlete). I am however the only woman in a household that raised three sons, highly outnumbered, and quit caring long ago. I refused to let my profound uncoordination keep me from doing things I wanted, from being a part, from being treated as though I equally deserved to participate. It taught my kids to be patient with me, forgiving with themselves and others in areas that weren’t their strengths, and less likely to look at people who wanted to participate but perhaps weren’t as strong in a given activity. Kayaking, hiking, yoga, swimming…I have injuries, scars, embarrassments from all. I’m not about to quit any of these things. I love them. They center me, ground me, keep stress at bay.
    Conversely, I am pretty good at photography. In an age of photo editing software, filters, social media, etc., I hear constantly from people that they aren’t good at taking pictures. My response is the same every time. The only bad photo is the one not taken. Your kids, your family, is not going to care if the lighting or composition is perfect, even if it’s out of focus. They will care that there ARE photos! No matter how far technology advances still images still capture that moment in time you can’t recapture. It’s part of your history, your story. Your family will thank you even if it’s not Instagram perfect. In fact my most treasured photos are he outtakes, the ones I was so frustrated with at the time where you can’t get three little boys to look the same direction. Their personalities just shine. Those are the ones framed.

  26. Katia says:

    I love rock climbing, though a fear of heights is my greatest challenge. I have been learning to play the Celtic harp, and although I am not a natural or great at it, I love it and so I continue to persevere. I agree with you, Anne, that it’s humbling to find something we’re not great at but enjoy doing. It’s also liberating, in some sense.

  27. Molly says:

    Hi Anne! I blew past 40 a few years ago, and I can say this revelation hasn’t hit me yet. I found myself smiling to hear you say that you liked being terrible at something. It says a lot about how comfortable you are in your own skin. I’m far from good at many things, but I can’t say I have found this liberating or enjoyable. If only I could come to grips with the fact that my house would embarrass June Cleaver and Donna Reed. I do hope this epiphany washes over me soon. Enjoy your time doing what you love!

  28. Christie Kline says:

    My husband and I started climbing at 42 when my daughter joined the local climbing team and a few of the parents had their own “team”. We’re all completely mediocre, but we’ll be doing this together with these parents after the kids all go off to college. I am regularly impressed with my body can do. Take a couple levels of classes. Technique will take you far farther than strength.

  29. Kathy Jackson says:

    I am terrible at a lot of things but I love doing them so I don’t care. Whether it is cooking (um, burning), sewing (can’t make a straight line), writing (have at least 30 stories started), photography (blurry), or rollerblading (can’t stop, don’t even try to teach me), I stink. I am a 911 Operator and I’m good at that – the rest is comic relief. 🙂

  30. Denise LaPlante says:

    What a stretching concept! We had been talking lately about finding more activities for our 7 year old to try so he could experience not being best. He has a passion for baseball and is great at school, but suddenly we realized that he was passing on childhood rituals like learning to swim or ride a bike because they didn’t come easily. Now, I’m going to have to consider if he learned that attitude from me! When is the last time I did something I wasn’t good at?

  31. Jerri says:

    Hi Anne, From time to time my family likes to go bowling. I’m awful, (dropping the ball behind me), but we have such fun together. I really like to go.

  32. Something I’m not the best at doing is creative writing, I suppose, because I don’t practice it enough. Now that I’m retired I thought I would finally learn to write a novel. Turns out it wasn’t as easy as I had imagined. I got and studied all the writing books, and purchased and learned editor software like Scrivener. My goal was to start small by writing short stories and work my way up from there. After three years I’m really not any nearer in achieving my goals as a writer than I was when I began. Yes, I’ve written most of my memoirs and a short story, nothing published, but that’s it! Writing doesn’t come naturally to me I guess. I’m still working on it along with other life interests like blogging, learning Spanish and German, and computer programming in Python. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only person who struggles with writing. Writing may end up being one of those things I will have to admit is not my best achievement. But then, I’m in good company.

  33. Diana says:

    I love this idea! I feel like I am so-so at a lot of things but now I want to find one thing I’m really good at and (at least) one thing I’m bad at but still enjoy!

  34. Shauna says:

    I love this! I’ve been a distance runner for 25 years, sticking to the roads. Last year I turned 40 and had to come to terms with the inevitable slowdown age brings.

    So I started trail running, and I LOVE it! I went from wanting to finish a half marathon in a certain time (and being devastated if I didn’t) to just wanting to finish a race without falling. I’m having the time of my life!

    By the way, I did fall (hard) the other day, but I got up, brushed myself off, and continued. I’m more proud of making it through that miserably hot run than my longest marathon training run! Glad you’re having fun too!

  35. Shelley Radmall says:

    Oh Anne. How I love your blog. What a timely post! I was just feeling like I’d stopped growing, rather too tired to do much of anything but the basics of daily life.
    I’m now 41. Mom of three, 17, 14, 11. Married. Financially secure. Exhausted!

    There must be something about our 30’s that calls us to recapture the adventuresome spirit of our youth. Perhaps we have made a routine for ourselves at this age that needs shaking up? Maybe we feel the clock ticking? Maybe our 40-something friends keep scaring us with stories their many aches and pains? If we are parents, possibly our children have reached a certain stage when they’re no longer in imminent danger of dying or starving to death without us? Or, maybe they want to try things and we must make sacrifices so they will know the thrill of the wind in their hair? Maybe we want more joy and satisfaction from simply living.

    Whatever the reason, nine years ago, I picked up cycling. Six years ago, I snow skied for the first time. 5 years ago, I gave mountain biking a shot. My husband bought a boat around the same time, so I became a skipper and had to learn how to drive it, hook , it to a trailer, and many other things like how to stand-up-paddle board and kayak, and get dragged by it at speed. But there was more. I dabbled more in world cuisines, I found out I liked yoga and teaching in my local church, and many other things.

    4 years ago, at age 37, I was diagnosed with MS after my leg stopped working, my right hand worked only sporadically, and for a time, my balance was suspiciously absent. So, I was forced to try other, decidedly less fun new things like walking with a cane, avoiding the Costco freezer, which seemed to be a direct on-switch for my numbness, getting used to regular IV infusions, (ew needles) and the most difficult is a tie: it was either riding in a charity event AS the benefactor of people’s charity with a special jersey just for me (embarrassing!), or, it was having to manage my energy account balance which was at the time, dangerously low. A one-hour session of seated laundry-folding had me begging for a nap and wishing my hand worked.

    Anyway, I am in remission for now, and although some damage from my attack at diagnosis remains, I can do so much more than I could at diagnosis. I still get scared my days of mobility are numbered. So, I can’t put a price on the lessons I learned through my earlier foray into action sports and world cuisine! They really emboldened me for difficult realities that lay ahead and the uncertainty of my future.

    These self-imposed challenges, for me at least, felt like divine intervention or intuition. I knew it was now or never. How glad I am that I know what skiing feels and smells like! (I’m from Utah, for crying out loud)! How grateful I am that I know I can try and fail but still find enjoyment in life! How glad I am that I know I truly HATE mountain biking! (Which I call hiking for people who like to complicate things).

    People say YOLO. I say YOYO. You’re Only Young Once! (And really, if you think of it, you’re younger today than you’ll ever be again)! Every day gives us the chance to live our lives fully. You seem to have this figured out. Thanks for giving me a chance to babble and ponder! I needed it!

  36. Rebecca says:

    I love this! My whole life I have regretted not continuing with my high school Spanish but always felt like my accent was terrible and I wasn´t good at it. I finally decided a few months ago that being able to speak and understand another language was important enough to me to get over myself. I´ve been studying Spanish a little each day ever since and I´m awful but I love it. Also, no one judges me for my flubs or bad accent! And each day I feel like I´m growing a useful skill, even if it never results in perfection.

  37. Heidi says:

    We took an archery class as a family at a bowhunting club. I loved it even though I was definitely the worst. I was trying really hard! The harder I tried, the worse my aim. The instructors seemed a bit puzzled by my inability to miss pretty much any target in random patterns. It didn’t bother me at all to be so terrible… like you I felt incredibly free from any pressure. I’m sure we will do it again this winter. . And i am looking forward to it.

  38. Amelia says:

    As an Enneagram 1, the idea of being terrible at anything makes me cringe…and also I am always worried that I’m not good enough at any given activity. I feel constant (internal) pressure to be competent at literally everything. I’m not even sure what I do that I’m terrible at but also love, because I end up avoiding the things I’m terrible at because being terrible makes me feel terrible. (I’m working on this. It’s a personal growth area.) I do think I’m pretty awful at Zumba, and I used to do that pretty regularly, but then I got married and moved and didn’t have a YMCA membership anymore, so I haven’t done that in a few years. Maybe getting back to that will be my terrible thing that I embrace.

  39. Ariel says:

    I’m a lot younger than 40, but I’ve found one of these–I recently joined a recreational roller derby team! I am absolutely the worst one on the rink, especially since I make it to so very few practices compared to how many there are, but I can actually see my progress even in one practice session. It’s still really hard for me to Be The Worst but the progression is so good.

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