FED's 500th Post! How Sucking Less is the Key to Success

Let me just say, "500 posts? Really?!"

So here we are.  500 posts and, according to Google Analytics, a total of 375,815 pageviews.  That this website, and my words, have reached thousands upon thousands of people is a little mind boggling.  The internet has given people like me the opportunity to create content and to find an audience, and for that I am beyond thankful.

For this 500th post, I wanted to something a bit special.  One part reminiscence, another part reflection, and a whole lot of suckiness.

We all suck at first.

Whoa!  Where did that come from?  Ok, so here's the deal.  I want you to remember the first time you tried to walk.  It's probably a bit fuzzy, but let me fill in the details for you.  It wasn't pretty.  Luckily you had a poo-filled diaper to cushion the landing.  There may have been a couple of tantrums, and some tears, but you kept at it.  Eventually, you started to learned how to put one foot in front of the other and, while we're not talking about smooth Chi Walking or smooth criminaling, you were at least getting your walk on.

If we look at this development (going from crawling to walking) from afar, we can then see that you didn't go from "can't walk at all" to "awesome at walking"  in one fell swoop.  Heck, plenty of people are still far from "awesome at walking" and they've been doing it for years!  Rather, you went from "sucking" to "sucking less".

Since this is something that we all experience as children, why then, as adults, do we struggle with struggling?  Why do we have a hard time with having a hard time?  Why do I keep repeating myself?

Personally, I blame the media.

We recently witnessed the spectacle of the London Olympics, and while I enjoy watching beach volleyball as much as the next guy, I think that television (and now online media) has had an insidious effect on our own ability to set and achieve goals.  How's this you ask?

Well, when you see an athlete competing at the Olympics, or at a professional level in any sport, you see them at the pinnacle of their ability.  Thus, what comes through the TV screen is the distillation of thousands of hours of unseen effort.  This effort has even been quantified and, assuming diligent and focused training (ie. "deliberate practice"), it is estimated that mastery demands a minimum of 10,000 hours of this intense work.

Unlike your typical sports training montage, this is a slow and grueling process.  Further complicating things is the fact that progress does not proceed in a nice linear fashion.  Rather, it is a process of fits and starts, "good" days and "bad".  The final punch in the nuts is that there isn't even a guarantee that there will be a gold medal or big payoff at the end!  (Which is why you also need to be intrinsically motivated.)

So, while it can be inspiring to witness masterful performances on TV, it can also make the process of skill acquisition both more daunting and misleading.  When you go out and try to do something like a "pro" and fall on your buttocks (like you did when you first started learning how to walk) there is the tendency to misinterpret this failure.  Contrary to your attitude as a child, you think that you are the problem, that YOU just CAN'T DO!  This tendency has been described in psychological literature as the primary attribution error and it tends to lead us to the conclusion that some people are born "with it" and, by extension, you were born "without it."  However, nothing could be further from the truth.

We suck at everything.

While some people may seem innately "talented" this is in fact an illusion.  To be sure, we are all born with particular psychological tendencies, genetic good fortune (or misfortune), and other such predispositions, but no one can escape the initial suckiness. To understand why it appears that some people are "just good" at certain things, we need to take into account a process sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect.

What the Matthew Effect describes is how an an initial small advantage (such as your a parents noticing that you like to throw things at people) can, over time, result in a very big advantage (starting quarterback on your high school football team!) or even an astronomical advantage (Tom Brady).  Sports and athletics provide particularly clear examples of the Matthew Effect in action, but the process applies across all domains and disciplines.

At this point, I'm going to going to let a little wind out of your sail.  You're probably never going to be "the best".  To become the next Tiger Woods, Bach, or Bill Gates you would have had to start accruing advantages over your competition at a very young age.  In music, to be a "prodigy" you have to start before the age of 5!  In addition to an early start, you would also need to really, really, love what you are doing in order to keep it up for the 10,000 hours needed to develop mastery.  And, on top of all that, you'd also need a generous helping of good old fashioned luck.

On the plus side, you don't have to be "the best" to enjoy what you're doing.  In fact, you really only have to be "pretty good"!

How to suck less - A case study

To illustrate my point that being comfortable with being terrible (aka "sucking") is the key to success, I'd like to take a trip down memory lane (and the FED archives) to examine how this blog went from "can't do it" to "pretty good".  

Can't Do It

There are things in life that you really can't do.  You can't breathe underwater.  You can't fly like a bird.  You can't immolate your enemies with laser beam eyes.  But, you could learn how to scuba dive (breathe underwater), hang-gliding (fly like a bird), or blow up missiles with a giant laser beam tank.  The point is, within reason, you can do a lot of things that you currently "can't do".

In my case, I felt intimidated by the idea of writing a blog even though I had written for magazines and had been forced to write quite a bit in school.  I was technically capable of writing a blog, but I was stuck thinking that it was too hard, too daunting, and too much work.

To get past this mental roadblock required a shift in attitude. I decided that I wasn't going to "start a successful blog", but rather I was going to "start an online diary."  The plan was to just get some words on the screen, and that's just what I did.

"Woke up at 6:15 thinking I was going to go to a conditioning class at Naja Muay Thai. As it turns out, I ended up diddling around on the internet too long and by the time I showed up, the instructor was walking out to his truck. I didn't have the heart make him stick around for an hour after he thought he was going to go home, so I decided to put the Monster Java drink that was now surging through my bloodstream to use, and headed to the Altamonte Springs Golds Gym."

This is actually the first paragraph of my first ever blog post.  Earth-shattering stuff right? Wrong!  It totally sucked!  But that's good, that's progress!  No one read it, but it got me moving in the right direction.

Totally Suck

Living in our modern "user friendly" culture, we expect to immediately figure things out.  If a new device isn't  intuitively and accessible, it is doomed to fail because we inherently dislike sucking at things.  Yeah, it's frustrating, it's hard, but it's life!  Languishing in "the suck" is rough, but it is an absolutely mandatory and inescapable part of learning how to do anything.

Despite the crushing hopelessness and feeling of "this is never going to end!", totally sucking isn't a static state.  Even while you are failing, and failing badly, you are building up crucial inertia to reach the "escape velocity" necessary to break out of this first sucky stage.

I can honestly say that this blog totally sucked for at least the first 40 posts and likely even beyond.  For some reason, I didn't bother uploading pictures, the posts were way too long and rather pointless, and the site itself was just a crappy free blogger template (which it still is, but I'll get back to that).

At some point, I suspect around my 40th post, I turned a corner.  At this juncture, I feel like the ratio of totally sucky material shifted towards "so so", and thus, we took yet another step forward.    

(You can check our my first "So So" post here)

So So

We all love those movies where someone picks up a baseball, soccer ball, football, etc. and on their first time out shows a glimmer of greatness.  We love this image because we all secretly hope that we have some amazing hidden ability.  We'll we don't.  What we do have inside is the ability to learn, to grow, and to develop our skills.  They don't come pre-installed like computer software, you have to write the program yourself with diligent practice.

With regards to this blog, there was a long period of time where the posts didn't totally suck, but I still hadn't gotten a feel for what worked.  This "so so" phase was where I experimented with a variety of angles.  I wrote "news" stories (basically summaries of articles I'd seen on Google News), "how to" columns, and created detailed accounts of my attempt to reach various fitness goals.

I finally started to develop in a cohesive direction with my first posts about going Paleo.  These posts were at once personal and valuable to a broader audience.  They weren't great, but they were more focused than anything I had done before.  At long last, I was "getting the hang of it."

Getting the hang of it

The line between "so so" and "getting the hang of it" is fuzzy and there is much overlap between the two.  The primary difference is subjective.  On the outside, you may still appear to be struggling, but you are in fact getting a feel for what you are supposed to do.  Experiencing this shift is akin to winning the lottery.  Even though you have nothing objective to show for it, inside you know that all those hours of hard work are finally paying off.

FED reached the "getting the hang of it" when I started posting recipes during my Paleo and Primal self-experiments.  It felt good to write these posts and for several months I was rather prolific, sometimes posting a new recipe every day (check out the complete index here).  Posting this frequently really got me comfortable with the process of blogging on a regular basis and it payed off in pageviews.  During this 6 month period, traffic to this site went from approximately zero to over 20,000 pageviews per month.

Not Bad

What does it mean to be "not bad"?  It means that you're skilled enough to finally enjoy what you're doing for the pure experience of doing it.

In my "not bad" phase I began to flex my creative muscles a bit and started to take on some subjects that I found particularly interesting.  I didn't really know how well these posts would go over, but I found that there was definitely an audience for more in-depth explorations of evolution ("Primal Chefs"), modern society ("The Art of ReCreation") and even a bit of nutritional rabble rousing ("Big Fat Lies").

I also refined my approach, for example, breaking down recipes into steps with multiple pictures to detail the process ("How to Milk an Almond").  When I noticed that other bloggers were commenting on my posts, reposting them, and promoting my content on their sites, I realized that I might even be doing "pretty good".

Pretty Good

If you have the persistence, determination, and will to become "pretty good" you deserve to give yourself a little pat on the back.  It takes a lot to get to this point, so you can now sit back a bit and reap some of the rewards.  You may even have enough experience under your belt to start helping those who are just getting started, deepening your own knowledge by teaching others.

I finally felt like I was doing "pretty good" with this whole blogging thing when I landed a regular contributor role for Paleo Magazine.  Cain, the editor over at Paleo Mag was happy enough with my work to send me on assignments like the recent Ancestral Health Symposium in Boston and to actually get paid to travel, write, and eat is literally a dream come true.


When we say someone is "talented", we are talking about those rare individuals who have managed to put all the pieces together.  The "secret" ingredients of hard work, luck, and environment were mixed together in just the right way to produce greatness.

With regards to blogging, I think that I am far from "talented" and I will need quite a few rotations through the "Steps to Suck Less" before I can even begin to think about becoming "great" at this.  Like many activities, blogging is actually a composite of many different skills (photography, IT, marketing savvy, writing, etc.) and each element can take a lifetime to master.  Like I said, progress isn't linear, it is a fractal of interrelated and intertwined causes and effects.

Despite the unpredictability and complexity of setting lofty goals, the only way to guarantee failure is to quit.  I intend not to quit.

Final Thoughts

I used the example of my blog to illustrate how with practice you can improve at just about anything.  Much of this is common sense and we have many slogans like "practice makes perfect" or "just do it" which speak to this idea.  In my experience, however, you really can't hear this message enough.

When you're going through your day, be vigilant and take note when your mind spits out an "I can't.." or "I couldn't...".  These self-defeating thoughts are the seeds of your self-liberation.  Taking them on and proving yourself wrong is how you write the story of your own success.

Don't be discouraged if you suck at first, we all do.
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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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