On The Fear Of Sucking, And What To Do About It

I find it too easy to stick to activities that I’m already good at. It’s pleasurable to complete a task and check an item off a list. I get a nice little dopamine fix. My routine is strengthened, and there is comfort in routine. I get fractionally better at whatever it is I’ve just done. And, most importantly, I never have to suck at or struggle through anything. My illusion of mastery over my own little corner of the universe is maintained.

I could dwell forever in my self-created Era of Good Feelings… if I could just ignore the following irritating thoughts.

  • I don’t know whether the stuff I’m good at actually maximizes my enjoyment.
  • There’s a chance that I might be much better at something I haven’t tried.
  • I can’t say that the force that keeps me from doing new things–which are also things I’m comparatively not good at–is rational.

If I were to come at the question of whether or not I should try something new rationally, I would try to measure the opportunity cost of switching tracks against the potential awesomeness of the new venture, weighted by my probability of success.

But that’s not actually what I do. Instead, my intense dislike of sucking at something new regularly trumps the possibility that I might discover something excellent. So I never start, or I quit at the first sign of trouble, and that pisses me off. I hate feeling like I might be stuck in a local maxima simply because I’m scared to feel bad.

I don’t think I’m the only one who acts this way. Starting in childhood, we are carefully observed to determine where our natural talents lie. Those talents are cultivated over time by a number of powerful external feedback mechanisms — parents, friends, schools, the job market. They are turned into economically useful skills, and we learn to rely on them. Sooner or later, this feedback loop is internalized and we become our own cultivators. But we may not have very good control over the mechanism.

Imagine that a rabbit in a lab learns to press a button and receive a reward. The lab’s scientists can condition the rabbit however they like, using a carrot here, an electric shock there. But when the scientists leave, will the rabbit learn to reconfigure the experimental apparatus and teach itself new tricks? Or will it go on pressing the same buttons in the same order to receive the same reward?

As human beings, we have the tools we need to assume command. We can do a lot better than that poor imaginary rabbit… it just doesn’t happen automatically. In particular, we have to power through the negative feedback: repeated failure, frustration, self-doubt, embarrassment, feeling like a total idiot, and all the rest of it.

It’s freaking hard, especially when I know that I can go right back to doing what I’m good at and get the warm fuzzies that I love. But the potential rewards are too precious to leave aside.

So, what exactly am I sucking at in 2015?

  1. Building iPhone apps / software engineering. I’ve been someone who can come up with an idea and describe what it should look like–sometimes in considerable written detail–but I’ve never, ever been the guy who builds it. That is going to change. I’m starting with iOS because it’s easy to commercialize, it’s pretty self-contained from a technology standpoint, and going mobile-first just seems like a no brainer at this point. I’m aiming to have my first production app out by early April. Judging by how difficult this has been so far, that schedule might be a little optimistic. Suckage rating: Three roombas and a clogged milkshake straw.
  2. Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I like jiu-jitsu because it allows me to satisfy my lust for combat without getting punched in the face. I dislike it because, as a beginner, I have roughly the same chances against an experienced practitioner as Panama did against the US. My understanding is that this utter helplessness lasts between six and twelve months, depending on one’s spatial aptitude and flexibility (average and horrible, in my case). In other words, I may have found a really, really good way to practice sucking. Suckage rating: Congress.
  3. Electronic music. That’s right, I’ve started producing bad electronic music! I’m using a Maschine Mikro, a Korg NanoKey 2, and the seemingly endless amounts of IDM, chiptune, shoegaze, ambient, dubstep, and who knows what else lodged in my brain. Check me out on SoundCloud, yo. Suckage rating: Interstellar space.
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