Ugly is Good

By Anthony Gold

How hard do you work to become good at something? Do you find it challenging to keep yourself motivated? Easily discouraged and quick to give up?

I know the feeling.

For me, if something captured my attention, I wanted to dig right in. But it often didn’t turn out so well.

The first time I held a guitar, I had visions of rockstar celebritydom. How hard could it be – there were only six strings? A few weeks and several blistered fingers later, I gave up. It was just too difficult. The sounds my guitar made didn’t even come close to what I was hearing on the CDs.

In his wonderful Outliers book, Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hour rule which basically suggests that ten-thousand hours of deliberate practice are required to become world-class in a particular field. So, if you practiced as much as a full-time job (40 hours per week), then in a mere five years you could become world-class.

10,000 hours? I couldn’t even get past 10 hours in my first attempt at becoming a musician.

But what if I had the wrong attitude toward playing an instrument? What if the measure of success wasn’t sounding like Jimi Hendrix but rather sounding slightly better than the last time?

In a now-famous oft-replicated experiment, a pottery teacher divided her class into two groups. Half the students were focused on learning every aspect of pottery including studying the best practices of master craftsmen on how to make the perfect pot. By modeling their performance on the masters, by the end of the semester they would be ready to churn out an exquisite mold.

The other half of the class was given fistfulls of clay on day one and began making pots. The pots were awful. Many of them fell apart, and the ones that somewhat held together looked horrific. But the class wasn’t judged by the quality of their pots. In fact, there was only one criteria for success in this group: quantity. The more pots you made – no matter how ugly – the better your grade.

The students in the second group suffered sore muscles but no bruised egos. They churned out hundreds of awful creations while maintaining stellar grades. But only for a few weeks. A curious thing occurred a month into the class. The pots actually started looking reasonable. And then by the end of the term, the pots were actually … superb!

What happened to the first group who studied and measured themselves against their ability to imitate the masters? By the end of the semester many of them were able to produce decent works, but nothing compared to the “quantity” group.

And so it is with nearly every endeavor in which we wish to excel. By comparing ourselves against a superstar or ideal outcome, our work will always be inferior. But if our measuring stick is quantity of “attempts” and performing slightly better than the last time – then success is often guaranteed.

Do you want to become good at a spiritual discipline like meditation, Buddhism, A Course in Miracles, The Power of Now, or any other transcendent practice? Instead of comparing yourself to the ideal, try measuring success based on your number of attempts. Give yourself permission to be an awful meditator or unfocused lesson practicer. Instead of saying, “I am terrible at this – my mind is all over the place – I’ll never be good”, try this mindset instead: “My success is guaranteed. There is nothing I need to master – I just need to keep doing it.”

And then with each attempt / study-session / real-world scenario, replace this phrase (“I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked”) with this one (“That’s another experience under my belt! My grade is continuing to improve.”)

You are merely asked to apply the ideas. You are not asked to judge them at all. You are asked only to use them. It is their use that will give them meaning to you. (W-in.8)

In fact, it is the judging (I failed, That wasn’t my best work, I’ll never get good at this, …) that truly holds us back.

By simply taking the mold of clay we’ve been given – in this case our mind (and its extension through our bodies) – and making pot after pot after pot, our success is guaranteed. Doesn’t matter how ugly or uninspiring the results may seem to be – all that matters is the quantity of pots we make.

So, give yourself permission to let go of judging your results. Smile gently each time we fail to be our best selves. Don’t commit to be a better person. That’s just a veiled form of judgment. Instead, commit to make another pot. And another one. In the end, our work will be masterful – it’s guaranteed.

Join us in Monday’s class where we’ll explore this nature of assured success and how we can shift our mindset from one of judgment and failure to that of peaceful progress toward a certain end. I look forward to seeing you then.

One thought on “Ugly is Good

  1. Thank you for this essay! I’m not able to make tonight’s class but wanted to comment.

    Loved Gladwell’s books and Outliers in particular. I can’t help thinking about the other part of the equation he stated beyond the 10,000 hours were the opportunities and the individuals willingness to follow those opportunities. Reminds me of asking Holy Spirit for guidance and following it.

    This essay also reminds me of the Buddhist concept of non-attachment to outcomes. Often we attach so much to our perceived need to control a desired outcome. Leading to anxiety, frustration, judgements, etc. this can actually take away our energy from being fully present in the moment.

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