At the end of kindergarten, I finished my first year of school thinking that the only new thing I had learned all year was what an addend was. And even that I knew; it was the technical name that I never learned. Everything else was review. It felt like a waste of time.
At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I finished my first year of AP tests thinking that the only thing I remember is that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. And even that I could barely place in context; it was the name and date I memorized. Everything else was new. It felt like there wasn’t enough time to learn everything. (exaggeration, but still)
Somewhere within these ten years, school has actually become hard, and I go into each year knowing less and less about what I’m supposed to learn. There’s an obvious difference between having no homework and an entire night’s worth of homework, and it’s foolish to think that’s I haven’t had to work harder.
Societal norms haven’t recognized that though.
We’ve created a culture where no one praises the effort of someone starting early on a school project and spending an hour every day to perfect the product, where no one praises the person who puts more effort into a class or extracurricular than everyone else. If anything, he/she is hated and called a “try-hard” and perhaps even a “teacher’s pet” In contrast, everyone marvels at the person who crams out the entire project in one night, pulling an all nighter and falling asleep in class the next day.
This is unacceptable. Just because someone cares more about something doesn’t mean that they should be ridiculed [See: Why Nerds are Unpopular]
It’s easy to say “Oh I BSed that so hard.” when you get a bad grade. It’s harder to say “I actually tried my hardest and I still failed.” The former is seen as cool in schools, while the honesty seen in the latter is instead perceived as weakness.
It all boils down to a fear of failure, of letting people see your imperfect side.
If you haven’t watched enough inspirational talks or at least heard a notable FDR quote on fear, they all say failure is nothing to worry about.
However, whenever I see an master artist around my age, I realize that they made all their big mistakes when they were around 4 or 5, back when everything was excusable, and they had already made a name for themselves before 10.
Which makes me wonder, as a high schooler trying something new when we’re expected to act like adults, is there any way I can compete with this? In other words, is there a proper way to fail at something before succeeding? (aside from having the advantages of youth)
It depends. For the fine arts, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to surpass someone with years of experience beneath their belt. However, for more complicated areas where the basics are more difficult to master and the learning curve is steeper, it may be different.
“Oh,” but you say. “I just can’t create anything good. Even when I try my hardest, the product turns out worse than everyone else’s.” (Pretty sure I’ve said some variant of this before)
To that, I present this overused quote by Ira Glass:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
Which leads me to my non-epiphany:
The only place for bad work is in the process of getting better.