Give Yourself Permission to Suck

When I was growing up I decided I wanted to play the guitar. I loved music, appreciated songwriting and wanted to be able to play and sing. As anyone who has ever tried to learn an instrument or anyone that’s lived with someone trying to learn a musical instrument can attest, at first you’re going to be really, really bad.

jeffmcneill via Flickr

But, if your desire to play is significant and you push through with practice, eventually, something magical can occur. Now, I never practiced enough to expect to rise very high in my musical career, but I did advance to the point where I could earn money, tips and drinks by playing in the bars in the town where I attended college.

The point is, if you want to achieve any level of success in your business one of the things you must do is give yourself permission to be bad at the things you don’t know how to do.

I encounter business owners frequently that tell me they are bad at this thing or that thing, or they fear they can’t master this important skill. The thing about holding back or caving in to fear is that it zaps your passion and kills your art.

There are so many things you must do in order to build a business and with most of these things you’ll have no idea how to do them properly and no experience to draw upon other than what you witness around you.

If you succeed in business at all at times it’s because you push through, fall down, and get back up to assess what you’ve learned.

The thing is though, many business owners just flat ignore some of the steps they must take in order to move their business forward with momentum because they don’t think they know enough about how to do something, or they don’t think they like that kind of work, or someone told them they’re no good at something.

If you’ve ever felt like your business is stuck and you keep bumping up against some unseen force that won’t let you move forward, look no further than yourself. The enemy is you and your unwillingness to do the things you must even though you’re afraid you’ll fail.

I’m not really trying to give you a pep talk here, this is straight on practical advice. You’re going to suck at many of things you need to do and that’s okay, that’s how you get to where you’re going.

There’s a chapter in the wonderful book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott titled Shitty First Drafts. Lamott describes a process of writing that involves getting something down on paper, without analysis, knowing that it won’t be very good, but also knowing that it’s the only way to get to the second and final draft. Unless you’re willing to write something very bad, you’ll never get to something beautiful.

When I realized that in order to build the business I wanted to build I would have to write every day, I just started to write. I had never really written this way and I was very bad at it. I didn’t want to be bad at it, but I gave myself permission to because it was the only way I was going to get somewhere I wanted to go. (Your ego has way of helping sometimes because I probably didn’t think some of my first works were as bad as they really were.)

When I realized that in order to build the business I wanted to build I would to have to get up in front of audiences and speak, I just started to do it. I had never done it before and I was very bad at it. I didn’t want to be bad at it, but I gave myself permission to because it was the only way I was going to get somewhere I wanted to go.

I’m by no means a great writer or a great speaker, but I’ve stuck with both long enough to get to the point where they are essential elements of my business and brand because I knew they had to be.

So far no one has been injured or killed by my doing either and that’s the point. Give yourself permission to be bad at doing the things you want and need to do and you might find that your art flows more easily.

So, by this point you might be saying, “But I don’t know how to get started with . . . ” – blogging, accounting, analysis, speaking, selling, hiring, SEO, or any other of a myriad of necessary activities I’m no good at.

That’s part two – How to be really, really good at everything you do.

Join Our Content Community

First Name

Last Name

Your Email (this will be your username)

Password (at least 8 characters, 1 number, 1 upper and lowercase letter)

Already a member? Log In

  • Antonio Coleman

    We all will learn on our own times..its up to us to make wrong into right..the only way to do this is to be horrible at times..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • Bruce Bonner

    Love the title of this article.

  • Steve Rice

    Great work, John. The interesting thing that i’ve found is that when I give myself permission to be bad and do something I didn’t think was possible, other people are inspired.

    It seems so few of us are willing to do the impossible things, that others love to watch us fail (and then, hopefully succeed).

    Learning something new and surprising myself (and others) is an amazing way to live!

    • ducttape

      Great thought there Steve – I think a lot of folks get inspired by what they see as something great, but fail to digest how much goes into it. I often call myself a 25 year overnight success.

  • Tom Buford

    Love it! Now I want to pick up Bird by Bird…lol. It’s great to allow yourself to suck. Just get out there and do it.


    • ducttape

      Hey Tom, if you love an irreverent read, packed with smart writing, you’ll love this book.

  • EvenAndy

    Great article! You do have to get out of your comfort zone and try something new (learn) something new to be successful in business. Everyone sucks at things in the beginning.

    • ducttape

      I think this is hard for some that fear making mistakes, but maybe even harder for those that have to get everything just so before they start. Just launch!

  • Lisbeth Tanz

    If you’re a perfectionist, the hardest thing to do is give yourself permission to not be. It’s taken years to move beyond the “if I write it down it will be real and it will suck” phase. I completely agree with your analysis. If you don’t allow yourself to be bad at something, you never have the hopes of being good.

    • ducttape

      Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim . . . I certainly make my share of mistakes by launching before I’m ready but people know how honest the process is and they accept, join and allow themselves to be inspired by it.

    • darrylj

      Perfectionists tend not to be able to leave things alone. I agree this can be somewhat paralyzing when trying to, say, write a decent post every day. I suppose quantity (lots of the so-called bad) eventually leads to quality (the so-called good).

      • ducttape

        I don’t know if I’m talking just about quantity, but more about commitment. It’s okay to give yourself permission not to write a blog post if you don’t have anything to say too.

  • PortaPocketGal

    most excellent advice. thanks for sharing!

  • PortaPocketGal

    i have to jump on the suck-at-public-speaking bandwagon. i’m A+ in front of small groups in casual settings. large & formal situations? D- …

  • Corinne McKay

    Thanks for this great post; I love “Bird by Bird” too. I recently read CJ Hayden’s book “Get Clients Now,” and one of her inspirational quotes is “You will never be completely ready. Start from where you are.” So many people get caught up in either fear of failure or in an eternal preparation phase, by which time the great idea is probably past its prime. This is such great advice; just give yourself permission to be cruddy at something and start from where you are.

    • ducttape

      See the thing is Corinne, there are so many things that you must do – you don’t really have a choice, so if you let yourself be okay with the fact that you will do them badly at first you remove all the judgement that gets in the way of actually doing something stunning.

  • Jonathan Goldhill

    Good post John. And so true.

  • Michael S. Logam

    I had a mentor once, another guy named John, who liked to get up in the morning and make his mistake, and get it out of the way first thing. Every time I am involved in the creative process, and not happy with the results I remind myself of John, and get on with it. Love the train wreck picture. Mike Logan

  • Tobey Deys

    It is really difficult to shake the ‘do well or do nothing’ (perfect or paralyzed) mindset. I’ve failed brilliantly at many things but somehow I’ve known that if I don’t take the risks, I’ll never know how really good I might be.

    Thanks for this, John!

    • ducttape

      Hey Tobey, Amen to that – I think you have experience the positive results a time or two or want it so bad that you push through before you get it.

  • EWilliams

    It is a great, great, great post. I work in a learning center and so many students are frustrated by their performance in an area that is not their strong point. I do the same thing with aspects of this job and my others. I find myself shying away from new things and doing a lot of what I am good at.

    If we would just accept the fact that we will bomb a thing or two, we will stop focusing on the fact that we failed and start learning from our mistakes. I agree with my fellow perfectionist; this is probably the hardest part of the learning process but it is crucial.

    I shared this with all of our students on Facebook. Hopefully they will be as affected by it as I was.

    • ducttape

      Thanks for sharing it with your students – I get to speak to classes pretty often and I sometimes wonder if they have the relevant context for this stuff to have an impact, but I keep sharing it.

  • MicroSourcing

    It’s inevitable for people to be terrible on something at one point. It’s either you commit to it, or let someone else do it for you.

    • ducttape

      Well, I don’t know, I’ll go a little farther to say you’ve got to get good enough to know how to hire someone to do it.

  • Helen Hammond

    I work for myself, but I’m also married to a professional classical musician… your article is an interesting analysis. My husband, by his own admission, is not an administrative person (and he couldn’t structure a marketing campaign for all the tea in china) but he’s been the biggest influence on my business of anyone. You see, for him to be successful he has to work really, really hard – far harder than I’d ever worked when I was in-house. He’ll spend days on end (10 hour days) going over the same passages. [Right now, as I type this, he’s working on a chromatic run that is doing nothing for my tinnitus] He knows that even with 5 CDs and dozens of international concerts under his belt he will still suck on the first (or 50th) attempt at something new… but with really hard, determined work, he’ll eventually crack it. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t tear his hair out on occasions but he know that if you’re determined enough and approach a problem using the skills you have, you’ll get there in the end. He’s been a huge inspiration to me.

    • ducttape

      I love this story Helen – I can’t imagine the drive this level of expertise requires! It’s inspires me just reading about it.

  • Elena Patrice

    Very wise, true words here John – thank you! I completely know that the demon is me in my absolute fear of failure; it’s, at times, so debilitating. I’m starting something new (today actually) and I’ve put it off for so long, made countless excuses and still don’t feel totally ready, but I’m diving in and know that I’ll get better as I do it over and over. The funny thing is, I know that it will very much enhance my business and make a huge difference. It goes back to the “pain vs. pleasure” concept … finally, the “pain” of my situation is so much so that I will do whatever is necessary to get out of it and be in a more manageable, “pleasurable” state. Human beings are funny like this … it’s odd.

    I really needed to read this today John, I’m very grateful!

    With kindness,


    • ducttape

      Go out and kick fear in the butt today Elena!

      • Elena Patrice

        Whoo hoo I’m ready!! :)

  • Teresa

    Thank you for an inspiring article. I needed to hear this today. The SEO giant is trying to frighten me into failure. I am transitioning to a new website and have much work to do before it is search engine ready. The sight looks great, now comes the hard part…. Thanks again for helping me center my priorities (even the ones that scare me).

    • ducttape

      This only made sense because it was what you were ready to hear – which means you knew it all along – now go get em!

  • Marcus Schaller

    My biggest obstacle in the past: Perfectionism and this insane notion that everything I do I must do brilliantly. I think it came from wrapping up so much of my identity in my work.

    Now I just let it rip. Much more fun!

    • ducttape

      Actually, I list to the other side – good is usually good enough for me :)

  • Devesh

    Loved this, John! Couldn’t agree more! Waiting for everything to be perfect, all skills mastered, fat savings accounts set aside, etc etc just “zaps your passion and kills your art” as a matter of fact some people just use these as alibis for their inaction and procrastination… many fail to realize that what they see as an overnight success is a result of years of hard working, sleepless night overs!

    There’s no better approach then start > test > improve > test > and follow the same until you succeed and improvement could mean 180 degree turn or even dropping the whole idea and picking up the next…

    Anyways, thanks again for a brilliant reminder – it’s OK to suck before suckceed 😉

    • ducttape

      I’m going to steal that – suckceed

  • Karen

    Thanks for this post, John. We live in such a cynical age where everyone is a critic it seems, and technology has made it possible for our mistakes to be published even before we can get the egg off our faces, so to speak. It’s easy to become afraid of failure and the ridicule that comes with it, so much so that we forget failure is just one step in the journey – an important step at that. Your articles are a good reminder to keep trying. Thanks!

    • ducttape

      Yikes – can’t tell you how many of grammar gaffes get published on Twitter :)

  • Julia Chambers

    Great article John, thanks for writing it.

    Someone asked me once years ago if I didn’t think it was wrong to put myself “out there” to provide a particular specialized service in a field that (at the time) I didn’t have years and years of experience doing. I told them no. I didn’t charge the kind of fee I would as an “expert,” I was able to help people even if only in a limited capacity at the time and I needed to start somewhere to gain that experience. As a result I gained more experience faster in a win-win situation for my clients. “Just get started,” is a great mantra.

    • ducttape

      As long as you’re one step ahead you can bring value – heck just providing insight to something you have no experience with can add value – I think where this trips people up is when they try to pretend they know more than they do – that’s when it starts to fall apart.

  • copy and paste

    do not be afraid of being bad. It’s s true. Perfectionism kills many good business idas.

  • Sheryle

    John, thanks so much for this post. It was timely as I just completed my first product launch and it was, in my eyes, a failure. That was until I realized all the skills I now have that I didn’t before and I can get better the next time around!

    • ducttape

      Great recovery there Sheryle – nobody can take that new found knowledge away either – even if you decide to share it freely, it’s still yours

  • C. Henry

    Great article, it reminds me of the philosophy that I’m learning to live by everyday; “Don’t give up, give in or give out.” C. Henry Adams

    • ducttape

      Like that!

  • Deanna, MarketDone

    “Im by no means a great writer or a great speaker, but I’ve stuck with both long enough to get to the point where they are essential elements of my business and brand because I knew they had to be.” thank you for speaking my heart

    • ducttape

      Thanks for allowing me too :)

  • Brian Andrew Paff

    Thank you, John. This is sage wisdom…Seth Godanesque in nature. I think you’ve captured what does indeed hold so many of us back…fear of failure. And nice work with the Anne Lamott quote…I’m reading Traveling Mercies right now and enjoy her candid humor…and the work of beauty that has emerged from her blatant and self-admitted imperfections.

    • ducttape

      Hey Brian – thanks and I’ll take Seth Godin comparisons anytime!

  • Georgia Justyourstyle

    I get your message, but it is really poorly written and filled with language which will “blow off” (your style) serious readers.
    The message to allow yourself to fail in order to succeed is not new, and needs to be constantly brought to business owners, parents, etc. etc. attention, but that title and the verbiage is going to lose you readers who are serious writers, or even readers who would like to present themselves as persons who have the ability to not only write, but able to present themselves in public speaking.
    The ability to present oneself as a public speaker has become more and more important, and necessary as the internet has brought those persons to the forefront. Once you become “known” on the internet, an individual must be able to follow that up in public.
    I don’t think that is going to be successful in the method of language you are using.
    Georgia, “Just Your Style”, Interiors and Occasions.

    • ducttape

      Hey Georgia – sorry if my style is off putting, but you actually helped make my argument even stronger – there will always be people that don’t agree with your brand of joy and that’s okay, you can’t let them stop you.

      I have no idea what your definition of serious writer or speaker is, and it’s clear that you’re not a regular reader, but that ship set sail long ago.

      I think the most ironic thing about your comment is that the only reason you showed up here today is because the headline of the post grabbed your attention. :)

  • Jo

    I know I’m a little late to the party by commenting (I only just found your blog) but your line ‘So far no one has been injured or killed by my doing either and that’s the point’ made me laugh. You’re right on there! I think it’s important to remember that what we do is rarely on a grand scale. We might not be very good at something as we start out and the consequences may be scary, but being a bit bad at something you’ve never done before probably won’t see the end of civilisation as we know it.