If a Job Is Worth Doing, . . .

You've got to learn to love your mistakes.

Posted Dec 19, 2011

Wisdom of the Ages
You probably filled in the rest of this sentence. Here's a new twist on an old expression that may just help you make more of the opportunities in your life.

If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly first.

These are the words of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm. I heard Joel recently on a podcast. He was speaking about his farming practices, but when asked at the end of the interview if there was anything else he might want to say to the listeners, he offered this advice, "If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly first." Of course, he went on to explain it.

Joel's perspective is that we've all grown up with the expression "if it's worth doing it's worth doing right." Personally, I grew up hearing it as "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well."  Yet, as Joel notes, nobody does it right the first time. Joel explained that it's this kind of thinking that "stigmitizes us from innovating in our own lives. We're scared to death to try new things, because we think we have to get it right the first time." With simple, clear examples, he added that we don't ride a bike ride the first time, we don't even walk well the first time. We have to try, fail and try again. Essentially, he argues that we have to move out of our comfort zone. In fact, he stresses that we actually have to enjoy doing it poorly the first time. 

This is a farmer's wisdom (and this is a very innovative farmer). It resonates well with what I've learned from master teachers as well as with research on perfectionism. Let me speak briefly to both of these.

I have been fortunate to have a number of mentors in my development as a teacher. Not surprisingly, each of these people has been recognized for their teaching excellence with numerous prestigious awards. One of my favorites, and a close friend, is a retired biology professor from the University of British Columbia, Lee Gass. Lee is now an outstanding sculptor (the art and science he practiced for years in the field and lab are now fueling another part of his creative spirit).

I've had the pleasure of walking in the mountains and along the ocean shore with Lee as this wonderful teacher helped me see the world in a different way - whether that meant glaciers or tidal pools. He would also tell me stories about teaching. He is a marvelous story teller.

As you can see, I could probably write forever about this exceptional man, but let me get to my point. Lee explained to me that it's not until we know that we don't know, it's not until we admit our ignorance, even celebrate our ignorance, that we can learn anything at all! Do you hear Joel Salatin's words here too? Where Joel talked about enjoying doing poorly the first time, Lee stresses the celebration of ignorance.

These are, as Joel also said in the podcast, epiphany moments. When we learn to see that it is through admitting our ignorance and trying even though it won't be perfect or even "right" the first time, we really start living.

Some of the research I have summarized in this blog underscores the peril of not taking this attitude in our goal pursuit. Perfectionism. It's often said to be the enemy of the good. It's also the enemy of even trying. We can become paralyzed by our own fear as Joel put it. 

Perfectionism, fear of failure, we're immobilized by our own lack of agency. This is another perspective on procrastination. The road not taken. 

I for one take this farmer's advice to heart. I do strive to do things as well as I possibly can, but I recognize that it's an iterative process, and it's the creative process where we learn and develop knowledge, even expertise, if we stay at it long enough (somthing that Malcolm Gladwell has called the 10,000-hour-rule in his writing about successful people or "outliers."). 

If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly first. What a freeing invitation to live, learn and grow.