Why Feeling Like a Failure Is a Good Thing

Have you ever tried doing something you aren’t good at? Worse, have you ever really really wanted to be good at something, and yet when you tried you just couldn’t get it? Say you wanted to learn a dance, or tried to hit that high note from “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” And yet, you just… couldn’t. Then comes the confusion, the weight of failure.

This is how I feel every week.

I think this is a good thing. If you want to learn rapidly, you have to get comfortable with failing. You need to get used to feelings of confusion, anxiety, even a little fear. This feeling of unease is natural when you’re doing something you haven’t yet mastered.

This is an opportunity. Whenever you feel inadequate, you can reframe this feeling and understand that it’s a necessary condition of learning something. It’s part of rapid learning and improvement, and is a positive sign of growth. If you feel like things are coming easily, you’re probably not stretching yourself enough.

What does all of this mean? That feeling incompetent is a necessary condition of learning quickly. 

Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life, alludes to this in one of my all-time favorite quotes:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Keep fighting. Don’t quit. Learn faster than you could have ever imagined.

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