It’s the second week of 2021. How is your resolution going?
Given that even in normal years something like 80 percent of resolutions fails and it is already clear this is definitely not a normal year, I’m guessing the answer for a great many of you will be, “What resolution?”
So does that mean you have to give up on self-improvement until the world is less insane? No, thankfully. As artist and author Austin Kleon pointed out on his consistently delightful blog recently, there’s another option.
Instead of demanding more from yourself, you can relax into glorious imperfection — in the end, you’ll probably end up getting further than if you drive yourself to excellence.
The obvious truth is that we’re all terrible when we start a new habit or hobby. But as natural and unavoidable as this may be, lots of folks really hate being bad at things. In fact, we often give up (or even fail to start) because we’re so uncomfortable with our own incompetence.
The solution isn’t to beat yourself up for not doing better faster. Nor is it to put things off until some magical future time where you’ll go from useless to awesome near instantaneously. Instead, it’s to embrace sucking for a while.
Kleon quotes Wharton professor Adam Grant to bring home this point: “Lower your standards for what counts as progress and you will be less paralyzed by perfectionism.”
Rather than set a goal of learning to play chess or the violin or running a half-marathon by March, Kleon instead suggests you simply commit to consistently sucking at whatever it is you’re trying to learn or do for 30 days.
“To get good, you first have to be willing to be bad,” he declares. “Don’t practice to get good. Practice sucking less.”
The perfect approach to self-improvement for 2021
This approach has a number of advantages. First, it’s easy. Being bad is a low effort in a low-energy year. Second, it’s stress-free. If you don’t expect perfection or even quick progress from yourself you won’t feel bad no matter how slowly you improve. And third and perhaps most important, this is also how you actually get good at hard skills — you keep on stinking at them, day after day after day.
Kleon’s inspiring post is full of motivating stories of professional creatives, from novelists to concert pianists, who take this freeing approach to practice. They accept doing badly as an inevitable part of getting better and commit to sitting down and making mistakes day after day after day.
This is a wise way to approach mastering new skills anytime, but it seems particularly suited to our draining, unpredictable times. You may not have the energy for excellence right now, and that’s OK. Instead, Kleon invites you to download his “30 days to suck less” calendar and just check off each day you manage to practice, however imperfectly.
After those 30 days, you’re likely to find yourself much better at whatever you’re trying to master without much suffering. And I’d add that science also indicates that practicing any kind of art or hobby, no matter how horribly, is a fantastic stress buster and resilience builder.
That’s a win-win and must surely beat your probably already failing new year’s resolution.