Giving Yourself Permission to Suck

Mom: “I’m never going to take him to practice driving again! He’s a danger on the road!”

Dad (picking up the keys): “Yep. And that’s unlikely to change if he doesn’t get more practice.”

I’m not even sure my father remembers that moment (often the most important moments in children’s lives are the most incidental to parents) but it made a huge impact on me.

It gave me permission to suck.

OK, let me put this in a nicer way: it gave me permission to be bad at something, and (in Non-Violent Communication terms) changed static language (He IS a danger) to dynamic (going to change). In even simpler terms: it gave me hope, and portrayed a reward for the practice: I would get good at driving!

(Spoiler: I am quite good at driving. Thanks, Dad!).

I didn’t like the feeling of being a bad driver. Aside from the terror of sharing pieces of asphalt with multi-ton hunks of steel hurtling towards me at ridiculous speeds (and that was just the mall parking lot), I had been raised in a culture where driving was held up as one of the defining moments of making the transition from child to adult. Being bad at it was more than just the shakiness of a new skill; it was also holding me back, crippling my self-esteem.

My Dad saw that, and found ways to remove some of the attachments that society put on the act of driving and bring it back down to the simple decision-tree and motor-skills level (pun intended).

It’s Not Magic

But here’s the thing: when he took me out again to practice, I was still pretty bad. “Permission to suck” means that you still suck. I was probably a little worse, even, due to the stress of how badly it had gone before. If this had been a John Hughes movie, when he took me out and gave me calm encouragement, I would have suddenly managed signaling lane changes and merging and turning left without cutting off oncoming traffic.

Instead, I ran over a gas pump.

Ok, I didn’t run over it, but I definitely ran into it. And dented the panel. And it was fine, they had insurance, the car was fine…but my confidence was even more shaken. What would my Mom say about me now?

Turns out, it didn’t matter, because my Dad made it a non-issue. He shrugged, and made plans to take me out again.

(I’ve since learned that there’s some incident from his youth involving Grandpa’s car, a marsh, and frogs coming out of the front grill. Perhaps that had something to do with his patience with me.)

I’ve had the experience of taking my own kids as novice drivers out, and I know now just how courageous my father was, and what a good and supportive teacher he was teaching me to accelerate out of curves and more – I know this because I can still hear his words of gentle encouragement when I drive now.

It wasn’t just the the support from my passenger that yes, this was scary, and yes, it would get better that were so helpful; it was having an environment that was safe to do poorly in.

The Final Ingredient

That’s the secret to how I learned to drive: my father giving me the ability to be a crappy driver as long as it took for me to not be.

As long as we stayed in the car.

That’s the other factor. This metaphor isn’t the best one for what I’m trying to point out here, because I had a big rite-of-passage motivating factor in wanting to be able to drive well enough to get my driver’s license.

In order for practice to work, you have to show up.

Right now there’s a skill that I feel like I suck at, which is sketching. There’s absolutely nothing forcing me to do it. Not only that, it’s totally ok for me to suck at it; my job doesn’t depend on it, I’m not trying to get certified as a sketchologist, and frankly my friends and loved ones have been nothing if not encouraging.

So why do I still suck?

Because I make excuses not to show up. I bring my sketchbook places, and don’t pull it out. I leave my iPad pencil uncharged. I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s sketches, but when it comes time to do it myself…

…I don’t.

And as long as I continue to avoid it, as my Dad said, I’m “unlikely to change unless he gets more practice.”

That’s me.

What do you need to be allowed to suck at? Whatever it is, come close, let me whisper a secret in your ear:

It’s ok. Do it anyway.

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