- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

At What Age is it No Longer Okay to Be Bad at Something?

I’m grateful for having started this blog when I was quite young. I started writing when I was 17, in early 2006. That was nearly ten years ago.

I’m not grateful because it’s better being a younger writer. If anything, it’s probably harder. You don’t have the life experiences or accomplishments to draw upon. There’s a greater insecurity in your own ideas, which tends to express itself in either complete self deprecation or overconfidence to compensate.

No, the reason I am grateful I started so young is simply because when you’re young it’s okay to be bad at something and keep doing it.

Being a Bad Entrepreneur

It took me seven years from the point I started working on online business in general, to the stage when I could earn enough to live on. Five of those years only on this blog.

In retrospect, spending five years to turn a blog into a full-time operation isn’t so bad. Very few blogs ever earn enough money for their owners to write for a living, so I’m definitely one of the lucky ones.

But it didn’t feel this way at the time. I remember in 2009 Chris Guillebeau released his guide, 279 Days to Overnight Success [1], detailing his path to building an online business over nearly a year of intense effort. The title was supposed to mock the attitude of many new entrepreneurs who expect instant riches, but I kept thinking, “Well, I’ve been at this for over 1800 days and I have little to show for it.”

Being younger, however, it was a lot easier to keep working on it, in spite of the apparent lack of success. The reason was simple: I was a broke student. I didn’t have any income, so even if the website could bring in several hundred dollars a month, that made a big difference in my life.

Even my goals were much more modest. My benchmark for success during those seven years of effort was to earn $20,000 in a year. This was a lot more money than I had been earning in school, so it felt almost luxurious. But I can’t imagine that benchmark would have satisfied me if I had already been working for years, earning a few multiples of that amount.

As a point in case, a blogging friend of mine quit, just as his blog was growing in popularity. The reason? Not enough money. He was a six-figure developer, so the idea of earning pocket change from writing a blog wasn’t compelling to him.

At What Age Did You Stop Drawing?

The relative opportunity cost of being young and broke, versus mature and more financially stable is part of the reason it’s harder to be bad at things when you’re older, but it’s not the whole story. The disinclination to try anything you’re bad at extends into non-monetary realms as well.

Most people I know, at some point in their childhood, used to like to draw. I know very few adults who enjoy drawing now. Why?

The easy answer (and I believe the wrong one) is that adults don’t have time. Adults are busy with important things, so there simply isn’t time in the day to pick up a pencil and produce a quick sketch of something.

This may be true, but that would only explain that adults don’t draw, not why they don’t seem to enjoy drawing very much.

I suspect the real reason is this: when you draw as a kid, it’s okay to be terrible at it. Children are objectively terrible at drawing. They have poor motor coordination, no technique and a distorted sense of proportion. But people still encourage them to draw because they’re kids, and it’s okay to be bad at drawing when you’re a kid.

When you become an adult, now you’re supposed to be good at things. It’s no longer okay to produce terrible drawings. Unless you were one of the rare people who actually got good at drawing in your teens, you’re now expected to give it up for the rest of your life.

Why Does Being Bad Stop Being Okay?

Some people, perhaps the more artistically inclined, are likely to point out that this is nonsense, that anyone can learn to draw at any age, and you shouldn’t feel this way, etc. But my guess is that for every person reading this, there is some pursuit in their life they won’t try because they’re too bad at it. Maybe yours isn’t drawing, but basketball, singing or math.

It’s easy to point to the absurdity of other people who are not good at things shying away from things you’re good at. It’s a lot harder to embrace something you’re too old to be bad at yourself.

I’m more interested in trying to understand why this seems to happen. Why does it stop being acceptable to be bad at things? If we know that, we might have some clues as to how to avoid it.

Hypothesis #1: Focus on Your Strengths

A common suggestion is to focus on the things your good at. This makes good economic sense. Since rewards often go disproportionately to the more skilled and specialized, it pays to invest yourself in becoming really good at only a few things.

This seems to explain my friend’s abandonment of blogging. He was too good at programming to justify spending a lot of time writing a blog which had low potential value for him. Yet, it was a good opportunity for me, since I had no comparable skills with which I could reap higher economic rewards.

While this explains some career choices people make, it hardly seems to explain drawing. Most people who do enjoy drawing, don’t make money from it. Even if they do, few artists I know claim that drawing was something they picked as a good specialization for financial rewards.

Therefore, this notion has pretty limited explanatory power outside of career specialization.

Hypothesis #2: Relative Enjoyment Returns to Ability

Another possibility could be that people enjoy skills they are better at. Since the distribution of natural talents is uneven within each of us, some people are going to be naturally better at, and enjoy more, exercising certain skills.

The difference between natural talents in children may be minor, so the enjoyment differential is similarly minor and you’re likely to try out tons of different skills. As you mature, you gravitate towards things you had more aptitude in, which causes you to practice and improve, which causes you to enjoy them even more. The positive feedback results in a strong specialization in your leisure pursuits.

This has a ring of truth to it, but I suspect it is also false. My evidence is that it’s hard to find any adult that enjoys his or her leisure time as much as a child enjoys making a terrible drawing. Kids seem to have more fun at many skills, even the ones they’re bad at.

This theory might explain why people like some pursuits more than others, but it doesn’t explain why we seem to increasingly dislike things we’re not good at as we age.

Hypothesis #3: Skilled Leisure Pursuits are Signals

The Hansonian critique [2], I suspect, would be that most people pursue skills in their leisure time as a way of subconsciously showing off. If you’re not good enough to impress people, what’s the point?

Kids enjoy many pursuits, simply because they’re given heavy praise for work that wouldn’t meet scrutiny if an adult produced it. Also because, to the extent that kids also compete for signaling purposes, the relative benchmark is lower and specialization hasn’t occurred to a large enough extent yet.

This one strikes me as being closest to the truth, but like the last one, it simply suggests that people ought to focus on skills they’re good at. It doesn’t explain the strong fears and aversions many people have to things they’re bad or mediocre at. Why might looking at a blank canvas actually provoke anxiety in an adult, when it wouldn’t in a child?

Learning to Be Okay at Being Mediocre at Something

I don’t think it’s possible, in a single article, to overcome the enormous cultural conditioning of avoiding things we’re bad at. I’m not sure it’s even possible for myself, let alone you, the reader.

But I do think we can put pressure on the margins of this problem. Maybe instead of trying out something you’re confident you’ll be dismal at, and which fills you with feelings of shame and embarrassment just thinking about it, maybe try out something you’re mediocre at right now, but suspect you might become good at with practice.

The best starting points I think are activities you used to enjoy when you were younger, but dropped off when they stopped meeting the adult standards of acceptability. You may have to push through some frustration or embarrassment in the beginning, but I suspect the real enjoyment of those pursuits is far closer to the surface than you imagine.