Karen Rinaldi had been surfing for five years when she caught her first wave unaided. She’s now been doing the sport for nearly two decades, but is still – by her own admission – terrible at it. This ‘suckiness’ is something Karen celebrates, and she sings the praises of doing something you’re bad at through a newsletter, suckatsomething.com, and her book, It’s Great To Suck At Something (Atria Books). ‘The freedom to suck is one of the greatest gifts I have ever given myself,’ she admits.
In a world where there’s so much pressure to succeed, Karen’s willingness to embrace mediocrity is refreshing. But she isn’t the only one calling time on perfectionism. Books such as Reshma Saujani’s Brave, Not Perfect (Currency), and How To Fail (HarperCollins), by journalist Elizabeth Day – spawned from her popular podcast of the same name – are adding to a growing drive to push back against our obsession with striving for success. For Karen, the realisation that it wasn’t essential to be great at something was liberating. ‘I don’t have to be good at surfing,’ she says. ‘No one needs me to be good at it.’
Here are seven other reasons it can be super to suck…
If you’re not doing something to achieve a goal or impress someone, all that’s left is the pleasure it gives you. So, your cakes may never win a bake-off, but if you can lose yourself in baking and being creative for a few hours, that’s just as valuable. ‘Instead of making success your goal, make feeling good your goal,’ says confidence coach Lisa Phillips. ‘Write a list of the things that make you happy, and make your only aim the fun you’ll have doing them.’
If you expect to excel at something, you can only be disappointed. And when we’re good at something, we can sometimes take it for granted. But being mediocre means every bit of progress feels extra-special. ‘When I catch a wave, I’ll hold on to that wave for weeks,’ says Karen. ‘I’ll lie in bed at night and I’ll go back to that wave. A professional surfer has to catch the wave of their life to get that same feeling.’
When you’re focused on achieving a goal or reaching a certain level, you’re always looking ahead, fixated on the result, instead of enjoying the journey. ‘Our attachment to outcome is one of the things that hurts us the most,’ says Karen. ‘The freedom of not having an outcome is liberating. I can paddle out and catch 10 waves. Or I can catch no waves at all. It doesn’t matter. I’m doing what I want.’ For Lisa Thompson, painting is a stress-reliever – even if her pictures get hidden away in the drawer afterwards. ‘It’s the “doing” that I enjoy,’ she says. ‘After I’ve finished, I feel refreshed and ready to get back to real life. Although the end result isn’t great, there’s a sense of achievement at having made something.’
A perfectionist isn’t necessarily someone who excels at everything. It can also be someone so worried they won’t succeed that they put off ever starting. ‘Rigid perfectionism often leads to procrastination,’ says chartered psychologist Dr Stephen Palmer*. ‘You avoid starting a new task because you fear being a failure.’ Perfectionism has also been linked to higher levels of anxiety and insomnia. But it’s healthy to embrace being imperfect. Something low-stakes, such as baking a less-than-photogenic cake, or knitting yourself a scarf with dropped stitches, is a good start.
If you can make peace with falling off a surfboard, muddling up your words in Spanish lessons or never getting the steps right in your dance class, then you’ll find life’s other setbacks easier to deal with, too. Think of it as building a muscle for failure. ‘If we’re used to bouncing back and feeling that it doesn’t matter when things go awry, we build inner resilience,’ says Lisa. For Karen, sucking at surfing has helped her cope when things go wrong elsewhere in life, and made her better at finding solutions. ‘When I messed up at work, I used to go into a tailspin,’ she says. ‘Now I jump to thinking how I’ll fix it.’
No critic is harsher than the one in your own head, but accepting your limitations can help silence that voice. ‘Just saying you suck at something is criticising yourself – but admitting you suck, and being OK with it, is shutting down that critic,’ says Karen. ‘“I suck at this, but it’s still awesome!” When I surf, that’s the feeling I get every time.’ Dr Thomas Curran, a psychologist at the London School of Economics, says it’s about normalising setbacks and realising that we’re all fallible. ‘Self-compassion helps to turn down the volume of the inner critic that’s a major source of stress and anxiety for perfectionists,’ he explains. ‘Learning to accept these mistakes and go easy on ourselves are very useful exercises.’
Ever noticed the magnetism of a person who can mess up but still laugh at themselves and carry on regardless? We often fear what people think of us, when the reality is they aren’t taking any notice – or they’re admiring us for giving it a go.‘If you’re doing something with an open heart,’ says Karen, ‘that self-acceptance is contagious.’