How To Shed Perfectionism And The Desire To Be Great At Everything By ‘Sucking At Something’
Like most of us, Karen Rinaldi spent her life doing her best to be great at what she pursued, and avoided things for which she didn’t have an aptitude.
As a twenty-plus year editor turned author, she credits “sucking at something” with fervor and abandon to be one of the most enlightening and expansive decisions she’s ever made. This was to such a degree that she wrote It’s Great To Suck At Something to encourage you to do it, too.
Why on Earth would you want to suck at something? Rinaldi explains: “The freedom of sucking at something can help you build resilience, embrace imperfection, and find joy in the pursuit rather than the goal.”
We live in a time of “aspirational psychoses”. “We humblebrag about how hard we work, and we prioritize productivity over play. Even kids don’t play for the sake of playing anymore: they’re building blocks to build the ideal college application. But we’re all being had. We’re told to be the best or nothing at all. We’re trapped in an epic and farcical quest for perfection. We judge others on stuff we can’t even begin to master, and it’s all making us more anxious and depressed than ever. Worse, we’re not improving on what really matters.”
Check out my conversation with Rinaldi as we discuss, ”The key to a richer, more fulfilling life is finding something to suck at.” After all, there are close to 8 billion people on the planet, so the likelihood of your being the best at something is small. “So, embrace sucking,” she insists.
Consider an alternative path
Perhaps, like you, Rinaldi didn’t casually decide to start ‘sucking’. She was on the same hamster wheel of seeking near-perfection.
So, from where did this unexpected idea come? She explains,“One day, standing outside of school pickup, one of my son’s classmates’ parents, John, asked me how my son was doing in school that year. I said, ‘He’s having a hard time’. John turned to my son and said, ‘It’s so great to suck at something!’ and I watched my son’s face lit up and I thought, ‘Oh my god, that just did more for him then all the trying to fix the problem.’ He never learned to write, but he wound up becoming valedictorian of his senior class.”
At what do you want to suck?
She took this lesson with her. “I was over forty, and there is no reason why anybody forty-plus should learn to surf because it’s almost impossible. But, I was compelled by it, and I was really bad at it. I wanted to do it more than anything else, yet I couldn’t do it. I kept persisting, hearing John’s voice saying, ‘It’s great to suck something.’ I thought that this could be my thing. It gave me permission to keep doing it and keep trying.”
She continues, “And by the way, I’ve been surfing for eighteen years, and I still suck at it. It’s the thing I love doing the most, yet, how is it possible that the thing where I am humbled and beat up is that which makes me happiest?”
Get over the discomfort
“People are so uncomfortable thinking of sucking at something that they stop being able to think forward about what it is that they might want to do. And I say, ‘Okay, think about something that you’ve always looked at somebody else doing and thought, ‘that looks fun, I wish I could do that’. It could be anything: glassblowing, dancing, tennis, painting. Well, why can’t you?”
And then get over perfectionism
“One of the things that got me started on this was this idea of perfectionism, when people say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that because I’m such a perfectionist.’ If you’re a perfectionist, is everything else that you do perfect? Because I don’t do anything perfectly…”
“It basically gives me the reason why I don’t have to enter something that scares me. It’s really another way of saying, ‘I’m afraid of failing’.”
Understand the two different types of striving
“Early psychologists have studied two different kinds of striving. There’s normal striving and there’s abnormal striving. Abnormal striving means that you can do it, and when you fail, you try again and again. Abnormal striving means if I fail, I’m done or I’m not worthy. There have been a lot of studies where people’s acceptance of imperfection really points to a better mental health outcome.”
“People who called themselves perfectionists have a higher rate of depression, anxiety, and disorders, and it makes so much sense. I think this striving for perfection is a profoundly damaging idea that is so pervasive. It’s workaholism, which leads us to think that we’re each so important that, ‘I have to be on it all the time, because without me, it’s gonna fall apart’. No, it doesn’t. And knowing that is hard, but humbling.”
Change the conversation
Rinaldi suggests that a better question to ask when you’re getting to know someone is, “What do you suck at?”
I asked her about her experience in asking this counter-culture question, and she admitted, “It stumps people. I posted a video of me surfing and a colleague of mine came in and she said, ‘So you really do suck at surfing?’ And I said I wasn’t kidding, to which she said, ‘Oh, I just thought it was a humble brag’. So, I asked her, ‘Well, how does that make you feel?’ And she said, ‘It makes me happy’ and I said, ‘That’s awesome. So now, what do you suck at?’ She replied, ‘I’m gonna have to find something.’ I’m still working on that idea of changing the conversation. There’s some resistance to it.”
Embrace leisure and being unproductive
“Research showed me that in the ancient Greeks’ philosophy, and throughout time, it was believed that leisure and being unproductive is what allows you to have access to the divine. You can’t do that if you have goals constantly in front of you. Your divine might be getting in touch with yourself, or something bigger, or oneness with the universe. You can’t have that experience if you’re constantly producing. Just stop being productive.”
How to suck in situations that matter
“It’s really hard to accept our mistakes and our less-than-perfection in the places where it matters. Family, partnership, work, friendship, community, service to others. We’re gonna fall short sometimes. So, the idea is that if you have a practice of sucking at something, and you’re honest about it, and you accept it, and you turn off the critic in your head. Those things where the stakes are really high, I would never call for that.”
Suck at something, not at everything
“There’s another way of saying the opposite of, ‘I’m such a perfectionist’ which is to say, ‘I suck at everything’. If you allow yourself to do something and not have to strive or be good at it, when you screw that up on the other side, you’re gonna be able to fix it a lot more quickly.”
“Something went wrong terribly wrong at work the other day. I panicked a bit at first, and then thought, ‘How am I gonna fix this? If you do this out of love, not fear, you’re gonna be able to fix this problem a lot quicker.’ That all happened in 30 seconds. But I don’t think I would have had the tools to fix that in 30 seconds ten years ago. It would have just been a thought of , ‘I screwed up. And this is now going to affect X, Y, and Z’.
Sucking at something taught me how to do that. I had to accept that I screwed something up. You have to be good at the stuff that you do, but you’re gonna screw up. It’s only about how you fix it and how you address it.”
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This article was originally published on Forbes.