The damned annoying truth about sucking at things

Originally published on The Pastry Box June 3, 2015

Someone asked the 90 year old why he still played the violin every day. He replied, “because I think I’m starting to make real progress!” ~ unknown


Just realized I have been programming longer than I haven’t, and I still suck at it. ~ Sarah Hopkins

Back in 2004, I started drawing a webcomic. I had no formal training in design and art, and the last time I had drawn regularly was as stress relief in college. I sucked. It took four hours every night I drew, two to three nights a week, to render the simplest comic.

I wrote the comic pretty regularly for about four years. At the end of those four years, it still took four hours a night two to three nights a week to produce the comic.

Someone asked me, “why does it still take you so long to draw the comic?”

It took four hours because four hours is what I had. If I’d had six hours, I’d’ve used six hours. Drawing a comic, it turned out, wasn’t something I could get faster at. Or rather I could get faster, at the expense of never getting better.

There are some things that have defined beginning and end states, and definite quality levels. Answering 100 multiplication questions is one. A speed run through Super Mario World is another. When we start to do these things, we can either do them slowly or we can do them wrong, or in many cases we can do them slowly and wrong. As we learn the patterns and the end states, we both pick up speed and quality, until we reach a point where we can run them at an optimal speed with near-perfect quality every time.

Then there are the things that have a defined beginning, “I know nothing,” and no defined end. Coding is one. Drawing, another. Writing. Sculpting. Teaching. Designing. When we start to do these things, we do them slowly, and we do them wrong. We learn to accept “good enough for tonight” is the stopping point, because there is no end state of perfect quality except what we define. (Also, because at some point we need to eat and sleep and go to our day jobs.)

Within the task of “Draw a comic” are a thousand smaller tasks that we can master. I can learn the curve of the line that makes up a thigh muscle. Once I’ve mastered that line, I’m much faster at drawing it. But just because I can draw a thigh in one try instead of six doesn’t mean the whole comic will be finished 20 minutes earlier. It means that now I have the time to move on to the next bad part of my drawing: calf muscles. They still take six tries or more. (Some day I hope to progress to fingers, the bastards of the comic world.)

After four years of drawing regularly, I still sucked. I still wasn’t as good as the ones who had been drawing 10 times as often for 10 times as long. I could see that I was moving forward, but I could also see that I wasn’t at the end.

On the other hand, I wasn’t at the beginning anymore. It still took four hours to draw a comic, but that comic was significantly more complex. I had learned more about my tools, learned more about the craft, and had a much better understanding of where I was going.

In 2008, I shifted from using my free time comicking to writing. I suck at it, but I’ve been working on it regularly for four years now, and I’m a published sucky writer instead of an unpublished sucky writer, and that’s a marker of progress. (Notably, it doesn’t stop me from making up words like “comicking”.)

Those who say they’ve mastered drawing, or coding, or writing worry me. They think they’ve reached the apex and there’s nothing else they need to learn. These fields don’t work that way.

If you look at your work in an unending discipline and say, “I suck,” that’s good. That means you can see room for improvement in your work, and you’re frustrated enough by it to want to get better.

Go forth and continue to suck!