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Why it’s good to be bad

4 min read


A while back, I made a long-standing dream come true. I signed up for a four-day video class offered by The Travel Channel.  The location? Santa Barbara – one of my favorite places in the world.

My purpose? After over 20 years in print and online journalism, I knew I needed to add videography to my bag of tricks. Never having even held a video camera before, this seemed like a great way to jump in. The others were newbies, as well. And I did, after all, have over two decades of storytelling behind me. How bad could it be?

As it turns out, the real question was, how bad could I be? And the answer was “very bad indeed.”  I was so bad that the sheer marvel of how bad I could be made people forget their manners. Even the teacher cringed. One guy said to me in the elevator after a very long day, “You know, I think you may be the worst in the entire class.”  It wasn’t meant to hurt my feelings.  It was as if it finally dawned on him that sailboats are different from powerboats and he was just pondering the observation aloud. I actually put people into trances by the sheer mesmerizing force of my mediocrity.

After the course, I used the 13-hour drive home to sort out what the heck had just happened and how I felt about it. As it turns out, not that bad. I had taken this class strictly for myself. I didn’t have to worry about getting a passing grade. I didn’t have to be better than anyone else (a good thing, as it turned out).  I was there to give myself a new professional skill. And now all I have to do is practice. A lot.

Then I pulled the camera back (so to speak) to look at my experience from a bigger picture of adult learning, especially in the high-stakes context of a professional environment where performance really does count. Here’s what I came up with:

  • To get good, you have to be willing to start out bad — and maybe even stay bad for a while.
  • It’s not about the grades. Now that you’re an adult, it’s about getting the skills you need to fulfill your dreams and potential.
  • Now that you’re an adult, candid commentary isn’t the end of the world. It can actually be a sign of respect. It may even be good for a laugh — even if it is at your expense.
  • It’s OK for others to be better than you, as long as you’re getting what you want and need out of the experience.
  • You may not be as smart (or as good, or even as quick a learner) as you thought you were. But as long as you’re learning what you came to learn, that’s what counts.
  • To get smart, you have to be willing to be stupid – even really stupid.
  • Never think out loud without running it through a filter several times.

Professionally, technologically and economically, we’re all on a very steep learning curve these days. If you work for a company that prides itself on being a learning organization, I hope it really means it — and that you’re graded not on how well you did in class, but on what you’re doing with everything you’re learning in life.

Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys, helps companies build authentically engaging workplace cultures.  She is the author of more than 15 books, including “The Truth About Getting the Best From People.”

Image credit, sculpies, via iStockPhoto