It Can Be Good to Be Bad

Trying a Role Where You're Likely to Bomb Gets You on the Road to Creativity

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While I'm not a big fan of sports metaphors (we all know how advertising is just like football) the idea for this blog post did come off the golf course.

A couple of weeks ago, I played in a charity tournament with some agency friends who are fluent with concepts like par and birdie. They were kind enough to let me join them. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I'm terrible. I can make a golf ball go almost any direction but straight. And it's not pretty. The look of horror on our caddy's face told me the honest truth about my talents. Is there even a word for quadruple bogie?

When I got home that evening, after the cocktails and the scallops wrapped in bacon, my wife asked me how it went. I told her that I had a blast. In fact I had a fantastic time. I love playing golf, and my lack of talent takes nothing away from the pleasure. I had to ask myself, "How can I love something that I'm so bad at?"

The question reminded me how totally transformative it is to be bad at something. We live in a world that rewards mastery, and the desire to get to that level drives us to extremes of specialization-- at the expense of what we might learn by letting ourselves flounder or fail.

My theory is that the joys of doing something badly help us get even better at the things that we do well.

We spend our lives developing degrees of competency in our jobs and other areas that seem to come easily, weeding out all the activities where we are convinced that we lack aptitude. In business, that means that some of us end up managing accounts, while other people dream up creative ideas, and still others write code.

The more we compartmentalize our talents, the more we fear straying from the proven formula that got us where we are. It gets harder to color outside the lines and to try something really stupid, just to see what happens. That caution represents the first step on the road to boredom and mediocrity. That's the death of innovation and creativity.

All kinds of wonderful things happen when you let yourself enjoy an activity where you've got little or no obvious talent. What could have been work turns into play. You're suddenly free of expectations and discover the experience of pure learning.

Figuring out something that seemed impossible the day before, whether you tend to excel at it or not, can help you remember that there are many stages in the process that brings you closer to mastery.

Who also doesn't need a dose of humility and an ego check? Struggling to do what may come naturally to others improves everyone's character. It also makes us much more patient when we watch someone else struggle to learn the skills that we already possess.

I'd like to create a climate at PJA Advertising where people can take a chance on roles and jobs knowing that they may totally bomb. Not because I think they're going to discover some hidden genius -- though that could happen -- but because it will give them a new appreciation for their talents and maybe make them even better.

As for myself, I'm not worried. I know that I'm going to be bad at golf for a very long time.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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