“Well, I can barely balance on one foot, so I’m going to assume this will go poorly.”
First day with the rollerblades strapped on, and as you probably expect, it’s bad. In my defence, I’ve never rollerbladed in my life! Hell, I’ve only skated twice (I know, I’m a terrible Canadian). Despite being some-what athletic, I’ve found myself with crappy coordination and unable to do the most basic athletic feat: balance on one foot. Maybe it’s my flat feet. It’s most likely the fact I never train balance. Nonetheless: here I am, standing on a concrete track, attempting to learn how to rollerblade, and sucking at it. A lot.
(Side note: is it rollerskate? Rollerblade? They seem interchangeable.)
The first 10 minutes were spent in relative shock, as I stood completely still with my hands in front (in case I face plant). Eventually, I started trying a few tips I picked up from my night of reading and binge-watching “beginner rollerblading” videos on YouTube. Push with the left foot, glide on the right.
My left foot shot straight back, the rest of me shooting forward. I don’t know how I maintained my composure, but I didn’t eat shit. I live to see another day.
Over the next 20 minutes I started to figure it out (and by that I mean I got it less wrong over time, instead of more right). I stopped pushing straight back and started pushing on a slight angle. I’m moving now! Except now I’m suddenly moving diagonally, at a speed of half an inch a minute. Okay, slightly better. It’s even harder to concentrate with my deep-rooted fear I’m going to slam my head off the ground (The helmet doesn’t magically dispel my anxiety. If anything it makes it worse: now my head looks bigger than it already is).
In between rounds of skating up and down the same 10 metres I sit down and read some articles on rollerblading advice. Yes, the diagonal pushing is helping! Oh dear, I don’t know how to stop (a valuable skill to have). Thankfully my rollerblades have this guard at the back of my right foot, so I can drag the bottom to a slow halt. Although I still think I should learn how to stop without it. Just in case.
Over the next two hours, the movement began to feel a little bit smoother, and my speed picked up bit by bit. I was getting better. And all in one day.
Walking back to my place (because there’s no way in hell I’m rollerblading there), I was thinking about how many times in my life I’ve been frustrated and insecure about my capabilities (or lack thereof), which were very apparent as I wobbled on my new blades like a toddler learning how to walk. And boy, there were plenty: my ruthless feedback on my tours as a Tour Guide (I was the poster-boy for unorganized rambling) or my very poor attempts at flirting with the opposite sex (I still suck at it, but I’m MUCH better. I hope).
And that’s just naming two. Lord knows there's more.
All this thinking led me to also think about why we’re so averse to not being good at something. Why is it that learning a new skill, or taking some form of a risk, is inherently daunting and scary? Why do we hate it when we suck?
One of my favourite theories in psychology is the Four Stages of Competence by Martin Broadwell. It’s a model of skill development that focuses on the psychological aspects of learning a new skill (or improving yourself in some endeavour). It hones in on the mentality of many learners as they embark on their journey.
There’s one specific part of the model I want to highlight.
Or, basically: you’re aware you suck.
This step (obviously) comes after unconscious incompetence, when you’re unaware of how bad you are at something. You can’t know how bad of a swimmer you are if you’ve never been in a pool. You can’t know how bad you are speaking in front of an audience if you’ve never… well, spoke in front of an audience.
(Alternatively, you might be able to theorize how bad you are, but by avoiding it you don’t have to experience it.)
When it comes to learning a new skill, the transition between unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence is where most people drop off. When you take a person from not being aware they suck at something to showing them they suck at it (a necessary step in learning anything), you’re very clearly pointing out their flaws. That’s never a fun experience.
But that’s kind of the point: you need to know how bad you are in order to get better. Overcome that hurdle, and you’re on your way to acquiring the skill.
The challenge is how you interpret and address being bad at something.
How you go about that is up to you. Some like to recite mantras to themselves, like “embrace the suck”. Some use accountability partners. Some cry every night while eating ice cream until it starts to come together.
My approach is a bit different.
I’ve walked a very odd line of risk-aversion and risk-seeking my entire life. On paper (or thinking to myself)I seem pretty risk-engaging: I moved away from home to go to school, I joined clubs and organizations without knowing anyone in them, and I’ve struck up conversations with strangers. I’ve taken day trips to different provinces and snuck into places I shouldn’t have been.
But I realized this past year that I’m really risk-averse. Despite moving away from home I’ve stayed in the same city I went to school in, because I struggle to imagine life not here (not to mention how scared I was to move away when I did, even though I knew I needed to). I’ve never left the continent, despite all my dreams to walk the streets of France blasting “Paris In The Rain” by Lauv. I often bitch out when I want to ask a girl out. When I get in trouble, I get really nervous about the consequences and tell myself I won’t do anything like that again.
Now I’m not saying risk-aversion is public enemy #1: risk-aversion is, in a way, a defence mechanism that keeps us safe by ensuring we don’t do stupid shit. But our brain’s protection mechanism very easily bleeds into areas of our lives it doesn’t need to. Yes, jumping off the 3rd-floor balcony isn’t smart. But that girl isn’t going to kill you for asking her out. You’re not going to die from flying on a plane and landing in a country where no one speaks English. Your elbow is going to be fine if you fall (although it might be smart to buy protective gear and learn how to fall safely). Everything isn’t a threat.
Addressing where my risk-aversion is holding me back, and setting up safe ways to challenge that mechanism has been a new goal of mine, and has slowly pushed me out of my comfort zone and into new territory. While I can’t list everything I’m doing (I have a superstition about sharing goals before they’ve gotten started), I can share a few. Teaching myself French (going poorly so far). Learning an Aerial. Teaching myself how to rollerblade. Hell, blogging was one of these new endeavours, although I didn’t realize I was bad at it as I thought.
At first, this was all painful. I hate sucking at something. Having my incompetence laid out in front of me as clear as day isn’t a fun experience. I can feel myself curling up, wanting to stop and shifting back to what I’m good at.
The problem is that doing so feeds the risk-aversion loop: I begin to focus on what I’m good at, which makes me avoid what I’m bad at, which makes me focus more on what I’m good at, which makes me avoid more of what I’m bad at… Ad infinitum.
To short-circuit this feedback loop, we have to do one specific, simple, but difficult thing: we have to accept that we’re going to suck.
Accepting that we’re going to suck is the key to overcoming conscious incompetence and the downward pull back to comfort. There isn’t a magical formula for this acceptance. Like I said earlier: everyone is going to have their own approach to do it. The goal is to find your way of accepting that you’re going to suck and do it anyways. To expect poor results, and shifting your attention to the experience of learning something new and getting better at it. Of excitedly starting at square one again. When you do that, you’re more likely to take the risk of trying something new and enjoying it. Even the crappy parts.
It’s easy to stay in our safe castles and avoid the trials and tribulations on the other side of the gate.
But on the other side of the gate is where the fun is. It’s where expression is.
It’s where life is.
Learning how to rollerblade and embracing this realization of how TERRIBLE I am at it is invigorating as it is challenging. It reminds me that there’s more to learn and more to experience. It reminds me that I’m a human being.
I hope you remind yourself that too. That sucking at something isn’t just a part of the experience: it’s a requirement. And accepting that reminds you that you too are human.
I’m reminding myself that every day. And you know what? I’m starting to enjoy it.
Until I eat shit, that is.