But it’s inevitable, so suck it up

I was 8 playing basketball on an after school team and I was miserable. Because I sucked. I was a scrawny, uncoordinated kid with lazy eyes, a big nose and absolutely no knowledge of basketball. My parents didn’t watch any sports. I didn’t have “team” clothing. I had a Washington Redskins poncho that I sorta liked, but I only wore it once because kids teased me. Bastards.

I would mainly bench sit. If I got the ball when I was playing it was like a lighting strike or something else that almost never happens and surprises the fuck out of everyone. And I would run the wrong way and shoot on the wrong basket, wondering the whole time why there was no one trying to stop me. And then, because I sucked, I would miss the shot, the ref would blow a whistle and call off-sides. Whatever.

So… I hated basketball. I hated all sports. I had no desire to play them, I didn’t understand kids who liked sports and traded cards and talked stats, but mostly I was awful. I sucked. Except for Dodge Ball.

We called it “Bombardment,” which is so much cooler than “Dodge Ball.” Bombardment sounded like war! I loved Bombardment. And I was strangely good at it. I could catch anything thrown at me. I could look in one direction and pick off a kid practically behind me, surprising the shit out of him. I used to aim for their throats. I wanted to kill people. The damn game was called “Bombardment,” after all. Shouldn’t it be like Verdun or the Somme or Hürtgen Forest?

I was good at it because I grew up on a private beach on the North Shore of Long Island that had a lot of rocks on it. I would throw rocks every single day. I’d toss a piece of driftwood out in the water and then throw rocks at it. I’d imagine it was a ship and I was the shore battery, and there would be mortars, howitzers, machine gun fire, all accompanied with mouth made sound effects. Jeez, I was such a weird kid! Ha!

Anyway… I developed a pretty monstrous throwing arm. I had range, I had accuracy, I had the element of surprise, I had the desire to crush some asshole’s fucking windpipe. I loved bombardment and I didn’t suck.

So, 400 words later, here is the point:

When we suck at something we do not like to do it.

Extra big for emphasis. The main reason you don’t like to do something, don’t like to practice it, don’t want to participate, is because you get results that are way below your expectations. It’s main reason you get frustrated and quit. It’s because sucking sucks.

But let’s say there’s something you really want to do. Like play a musical instrument, or paint, or write poetry, or dance. Or cook. Or be an artist. Be an entrepreneur. Be an athlete. Anything. You want to do this, you’d love to do this, but oh man… you SUCK. You’re a beginner and YOU SUCK. You’ve hit a plateau and YOU SUCK. You’re technique is shit and YOU SUCK.

You hate looking at or listening to your work. It’s embarrasing. It’s beneath you. You’re running the wrong way and shooting on the wrong basket. It’s physically painful. You want to do it so so much, but you just suck.

You must get past the suck. Try these things:

APP IT: Arrange an immediate, decent result.
People think this is cheating but it isn’t. You need to somehow arrange things such that you’ll like your results. If you like your results there’s a much better chance you’ll be happy and that you’ll continue to try. Continuing to try is called “practice” and it is the only way to actually get better. See how this works?

It’s the whole point behind camera apps and filters. With Instagram, or my favorite, Hipstamatic, a bunch of filters are applied that make whatever you shoot look sorta cool. Never mind that you don’t get composition or any of the technical issues, it doesn’t matter. You wind up with a decently cool picture, and you can post it up, and friends can give you positive reinforcement. This makes you shoot more pictures. Gradually, you improve your eye. You might start looking at photo books, find professional photographers with an aesthetic you admire (steal), read about technique. And you might just start turning off the filters and… maybe you start to get passionate.

Passion can often triumph over suck. If you APP IT, you are coaxing in some passion.

I taught photography for a number of years. Other teachers would make students use a manual camera and shoot with a 50mm fixed lens. They would insist that this is the only way to teach photography, the only way to learn composition. Good lord! It’s a formula for shitty pictures and frustration. I would let my students use zoom lenses, wide angles, whatever. I’d let them shoot out of focus, through paper tubes, put plastic wrap over the lens, overexpose, underexpose, crop things funny, double expose. WHATEVER. Anything to get a cool picture they actually liked, and of which they were proud. A decent result means you’ll want to try again. Which is practice. Which is the only way to get better.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Yep. Start the teaching by starving the fish in a pond so they’ll bite at anything. And make it a cool looking fish! And then keep doing that. And then one day, the man might say, “Let’s try fishing in the ocean.”

So figure it out. Glue a picture to your canvas and paint over it. Collage things together. Run your vocal mic through all sorts of strange processors so you sound like a rhino. Copy something. Make it cool, and make it easy, and invite passion into you.

Get a tribe.
Find other people about your skill level or slightly better, and work with them or around them, or share your work and look at theirs.

There’s not an art movement in history that had only one person in it. There’s not a great band in music that didn’t emerge from a scene. Find your tribe. Find people who are trying not to suck, just like you. Support them. Praise their work sincerily — there is always something good to find. Be brave and show them yours.

Join an artists collective and go to the meetings and the work sessions. Share a studio with someone. Have lunch and talk about the work.

Kick assholes out of the tribe. Let them die in the wilderness. You need people who love you like grandma but with more sophisticated taste. And if grandma has taste then bring her into the tribe, too.

Enable each other. Enoble each other. Let passion spread like a plague and infect all of you.

Discipline your ass and practice.
Remember — only one way to get truly better at anything… practice.

There’s a story of a poor shoemaker that fell asleep and a bunch of elves came into the shop that night and made a bunch of shoes and in the morning lo and behold!

There’s no such thing as elves. You leave the guitar in its case, your hands don’t magically detach while you’re sleeping, crawl across the room in the dark, open the case and run scales. If you don’t work on the painting then the painting won’t get worked on. It is so so profoundly simple.

But it is difficult. There are not a lot of prodigies out there because there are not a lot of people with the inborn discipline to practice ridiculously hard. If you’ve got that will, you’re beyond lucky. You’re blessed. If you don’t, you have to figure something out to get the practicing done.

My son hates to practice. If I leave guitars all over the house, so whenever he sits down there’s one right there, he practices. He practices while watching TV. Fine. As long as he practices. Once he gets pretty good he’ll find a little passion and maybe get more serious about it.

Leave your stuff set up. Reduce starting friction. If you have to pull out your brushes and paints every time you go to paint, and then you have to put it all away when you’re done, you will be highly disinclined to do your work. Leave your stuff out. Leave the studio a mess. Leave things plugged in. Set your computer to turn itself on five minutes before you walk into the home office in the morning.

Increase stopping friction. Work in a place where there are no snacks. Go to a place with shitty WiFi and mobile reception. Lock the door and put a sign on it. Don’t tell anyone where you are.

Add a big stick. I don’t really paint of my own free will. When I want to crank out paintings, I book a gallery show somewhere. That straightens my butt right out.

Set a timer. God, this works so well: Set a timer for half an hour and then do the thing you’re suppose to be doing. You’ll find the timer goes off and you’ll want to keep going. That’s a flow state you’re in. You want that. Turn the timer off and keep going until, well, you’ll know when you need a break. You’ll feel yourself drop out of flow state. Your concentration will waiver. You’ll suddenly feel tired. Set an alarm and take a break. Walk around a bit. Stay off the damn iPhone. Ding! Set the alarm again for half an hour and get back to it.

And that’s it. You’ll suck. It’s inevitable. Figure out a way to continue working until the suck lessens and you find some passion. That’s all there is.