Don’t Be Afraid to Look Stupid

Monday April 16, 2018
Ben Bergeron & Christine Bald

A few years ago, athletes and competitors at CrossFit New England would occasionally witness a strange sight: CrossFit Games champion Katrin Davidsdottir struggling to push a loaded sled a single foot.

While the spectacle of the world’s fittest woman clumsily working with odd objects might seem surprising, it actually makes perfect sense. As fit and skilled as she was, Katrin was determined to improve, to push the boundaries of the possible. The only way that happens is to build new connections in the brain—which means reaching and failing.

As we get to work on our weaknesses in the post-Open off-season, it’s important to remember that we have to be bad before we’re good. Learning new skills (or improving existing skills) requires long periods of clumsiness. We become skilled by performing thousands of reps, taking our time, paying attention to errors, and yes, occasionally looking stupid.

Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way our brains grow and form new connections. When it comes to developing talent, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts we use to get better.

One way to ensure you’re making “productive mistakes” is to create an environment conducive to true practice. If you’re working on rowing mechanics, for example, flip the monitor down so you can’t see your pace, power output, or strokes per minute. By removing the trappings of competition, you’ll move more deliberately, with greater focus and make stronger progress.

Whatever the strategy, the goal is always the same: to make sure we’re always reaching, and to interpret mistakes so that they’re not verdicts, but information we use to improve.

For more practical tips on developing talent, check out Daniel Coyle’s awesome book, The Little Book of Talent.