Four Simple Steps to Not Sucking (or at least, getting past it)

I had a brief exchange with someone this week, where they told me they’d quit the gym. Now, I happen to like the gym, but that’s not why I’m telling this story. I’m sharing this story because it struck me as a perfect illustration for where so many people go wrong when it comes to sticking to any goal of self-improvement or skill acquisition.

The Illustration

When speaking with this person, they had joined for 6 months with the intention of doing several early morning sessions a week. By the end of that 6 month period, I know they were skipping more sessions than they were making. Then they quit. They said they had “given it their best shot“, but it “wasn’t for them“.

In trying to explain why they had quit, they felt it important to state “I’ve actually been doing more stuff outside, and I’ve just realised I’m more of an outdoors person, so that’s why I never got on with the gym“.

Benefit of the doubt
Look, let’s be reasonable: just because I like the gym, this doesn’t mean everyone will. I get that. It is also unquestionable that forcing oneself to do early morning sessions doesn’t always work for certain individuals. And at the end of the day, it’s also 100% their choice to go to the gym, or whatever activity is in question.

In this regard, it’s very easy to look at the situation as an outsider, not give it a second’s thought, accept their answer as perfectly reasonable and move on. But here’s what stuck in my mind about this conversation…

It doesn’t stand up to even mild consideration
Firstly, we’ve all been in conversations like this or made justifications like this to ourselves. But secondly, it doesn’t stand up to even a modicum of rational consideration.

To my mind, it so perfectly encapsulates our first world modern recipe for failure. When we fail, each of us convinces ourselves that we gave something our “best shot” or that we simply didn’t enjoy something, when in reality we didn’t make even basic preparations to make sure something worked. We set unrealistic expectations of how often we’d do something, or for how long. Then we don’t actually go, and beat ourselves up. And when we do go, we don’t have a plan we know will work.

And yet after the fact, we reframe it to explain away these fundamental failures of preparation so we can feel OK about saying “it just wasn’t for me”.

NOTE: I say “we” because I have been just as guilty of this, and I’m extraordinarily wary of being just as capable of doing the same thing again in the future.

Four Steps to Help

But the good news is, there are some ludicrously basic things we can do to ensure success in new and ongoing endeavours. Some of these may seem obvious, but believe me, very very intelligent people seem to suddenly overlook the importance of these when they are actually trying to improve themselves or develop skillsets.

1. Accept that you are going to suck, at least at first

Whenever we start something new, you are going to suck at first. Sure, there are some situations where we find ourselves a little more adept than the average new starter at something, but everyone sucks, at least at first. And for most, this is hard. It’s painful to endure because it’s often physically hard, e.g. the gym, singing, or taking up a new sport.

It’s psychologically hard, because the brain won’t be giving you those dopamine hits that we are so used to in the modern world, where it rewards you for doing tasks well.

But the worst element, is that it is hard on the ego. It’s quite a hit to our precious ego to realise that we aren’t as competent at something as we might have hoped. Now while the person I had the conversation with didn’t mention this, it is almost inevitable that they didn’t enjoy it because they didn’t accept the inevitability of the start.

Sucking at first is OK. It keeps us humble, but there’s also learning advantages to being an absolute beginner. This is where the biggest gains are made, and for much less effort than it will take later. But if we cannot learn to “embrace the suck” at the start, if we let that derail us, rather than enjoy the manifold benefits of the beginning stage, then we’re going to go nowhere… and probably end up quitting.

2. Do the work, and make it manageable

The second thing I’d point out about the gym-non-goer, is that they didn’t have a specific plan beyond going to the gym before 6am three times a week. Even I wouldn’t be up for that!

So in this regard, failure was near enough guaranteed is because they set a totally unachievable goal for themselves. If you don’t show up, you don’t do the work, and you don’t get any better.

We must have a plan, and it must be achievable within the parameters of our current strengths and capacities. Like the quote from the first Matrix film, “Know thyself“. Start with a plan that is SO ludicrously achievable, you can’t help but achieve it.

That’s also a great way to reinforce dopamine hits and feel great about your practice. If it’s the gym, try twice a week at times that you are definitely awake and definitely up for the exercise. If it’s singing and voice work, break it up into smaller chunks that fit neatly into your diary.

The reverse is to create intricate and grandiose lofty schedules that are like a game of Kerplunk, where if one thing goes, the whole structure collapses. The result is that we get frustrated, we then feel bad about our micro-failures. This creates negative reinforcement that incentivises us such that we try to avoid the offending thing.

The point is this: to get better, we need to do the work, and to do the work we need to make it manageable… which brings us to point 3.

3. Work with someone who knows what they are doing

In any specific skill-based endeavour, there are progress super-highways that accelerate progress rapidly. If we can get onto these, we are going to zoom forward in our abilities. But there are also slow-moving back roads and thousands of cul-de-sacs. But which pathways are which? Well, that’s where we need someone who knows what they are doing.

In every serious long-term activity I’ve undertaken, I’ve hired an expert coach to help me. When I took up a martial art, I saw a high-level instructor twice a week, every week for 5 years (up til March 2020, thanks Covid). I really did suck for the first few years.

When one of the only activities I could do was the gym, I started seeing the PT who owns the gym. I have it in my diary at the same time every week, so that I have to go, whether I want to or not.

By working regularly with the best coach that we can, they can not only create a manageable plan for us (per point 2), but they also know which avenues are going to lead to rapid progress and which ones are dead-ends. When we try to DIY it, we literally have no idea, and the odds are on for us hitting dead-end after dead-end.

Where our non-gym-goer friend went wrong, was that they tried to make a big radical change to their life, in a brand new discipline, with zero guidance. They didn’t get a plan tailored to them, they didn’t get someone to identify where they are presently at, or what would work well for their body type and life goals.

4. No excuses and no retrospective justifications

The final point I’d make is that people are very good at cooking up retrospective excuses for why something they did failed. In our non-gym-goers case, they “suddenly realised” they are more of an outdoors person, and that’s why the gym didn’t take. Well, for reasons listed above I think it’s far more likely they didn’t take to the gym because they didn’t put core elements in place to ensure success at that endeavour.

It’s very easy to give in to endless pondering about why something inside us prevented us from achieving things. But without getting too philosophically heavy, we often do this to shelter our precious egos from the truth, that we just didn’t do what was necessary to make it work. Sometimes we don’t even know what would have been necessary, which makes it all the more frustrating.

Truthfully though, I’ve never seen anything that human beings can’t chip away at with a humble attitude, a manageable plan and an expert eye. Learning experts such as Anders Ericssen also corroborate this, through identifying the adaptibility of the human mind and body to any task that it chooses to conduct deliberate practice on.

Closing point for those past that initial stage

If we follow the above steps, and remain consistent, the gears really do start to mesh and things start to progress. These steps are incredibly powerful for building sustainable and effective habits.

This brings me to a closing quote I’ve referenced before:

What I gradually realised was that the very same activities that had rescued me from failure, would also rescue me from [merely surviving] to success – if [only] I would just keep doing them.

Find what works through someone who knows what they’re doing, make it sustainable, and just keep doing what works.

Leave a Reply