How I Learned To Say I’m Not Good At Something.

Last year, at a bachelorette party of one of my friends, I hitched a ride with one of her coworkers. She’s this BEAUTIFUL woman with a PhD AND great hair, driving a kickass BMW. One of those “how does she do it”-types, you know?

When we pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant, there weren’t that many spots left. She turned to me and said to me: “I’m horrible at parallel parking. Can you do it?”

Time slowed down as I looked at her in confusion and tried to comprehend what was happening.

Did this woman who I hardly knew just flat out admitted to me that she wasn’t good at something? And asked me for help? Asking me, a stranger, for help with a thing? BECAUSE she wasn’t good at that thing?

DO PEOPLE DO THAT?!

Not me. I would have rather scraped a wall, hit the two adjacent cars and perhaps a small child before I would have EVER admitted to someone I don’t know I wasn’t good at something. (Especially something women are stereotyped to be bad at. I tend to overcompensate. I drive everywhere and practice parallel parking so I don’t look like I don’t know what I’m doing #femniism)

I blinked. “Sure”, I said. We switched seats and I parallel parked her car for her. I’m sure she never ever thought of it again, as she went about her life in her fabulous way. But it stuck with me. Because I would have never done that, and I was amazed she so freely could.

Huh. This is a thing people do, apparently. Where they admit they aren’t good at something, and they aren’t racked with guilt and shame about it, and life still continues.

Later, one of my new colleagues sort of became my unofficial supervisor as I started out in a different position. A brilliant woman, with several degrees and one more in the making, a ton of work experience, speaking three languages like it was nothing. I loved asking her questions and learning from her (still do), and she was showing me the ropes.

At one point we were on our way to a meeting, and in the most relaxed, unapologetic type way she says to me: “Just so you know, I’m always late to things. So don’t wait for me with meetings and stuff.”

Once again, time slowed down. I blinked multiple times and shook my head to clear it. This clearly very competent woman, who I was in awe of in terms of education and experience, flat out TOLD ME she wasn’t perfect and WAS TOTALLY OKAY WITH THAT.

See…I don’t do that. I don’t know if you do, but I don’t.

I cannot admit I am not good at something. It may seem like I can because I joke around all the time about being clumsy or not being able to snowboard , but I can’t. Not about real stuff, like work or writing or anything else I really care about.

I am an insanely proud person. I have an intense need to be excellent at everything. And whatever I do sort-of-okay in is absolutely not okay and we will not speak of it.

Even though I’ve been coming to terms with my flaws and imperfections, I would still rather die than tell someone all the things I’m not good at. I don’t want to talk about that stuff. I just want to improve in silence while nobody ever talks to me about that time when I wasn’t good at something.

But these two women! Women who were clearly accomplished, good at a lot of things, just boldly stated that they weren’t good at something, and that was okay. I was super-inspired by that.

And I decided to put it to the test how that works when some of my former students asked me for letters of recommendation.

That’s no problem. Not only do I know my students quite well and know a lot about their individual strengths to personalise each letter, I can also write a damn good letter.

What I’m NOT good at is details. Double-checking texts I have written myself. I find it tedious, it takes me three times as long as it does to write a whole letter, and no matter how often I check, I always miss one typo or one word.

So I decided to do something RADICAl. Instead of projecting this image of a perfect teacher I emailed the letter of recommendations (that I had put a lot of attention in and had reread once; I’m not a monster) out with a little note to my students that said: “Hey, I wrote you your letter but I’m not very good at double-checking. Please read it in case I missed a typo and I’ll correct it.”

And one of the students did find a typo, and ‘lo and behold, it wasn’t the end of the world. They were still happy with the letters and I had saved myself agonising over details and embarrassment by just stating that they might find a typo, because that’s just not my strong suit.

I found saying “I’m not good at something” very liberating.

We project this image of ourselves into the world, one that feels like a useful projection Some people online project their weakest self to other people. For moral support and love and help. People like me project what our egos tolerate we show the world. A touch of vulnerability here and there, but nothing too close.* I can show you I’m not perfect, but only in a fun way. I’ll show you I’m a real person, but only when it comes to unimportant stuff.

But I’m a person. Who has character flaws and knowledge gaps and imperfections just like you do. Just like the people you meet in real life.

The lesson I learned here was that you can just come out and say that you’re not good at something, and that doesn’t automatically mean you’re not good at anything. If anything, it creates clear expectations and space to learn, and it secures understanding and help in case you need it. Like the woman I helped parallel park her car, and like me writing a great letter that just needs one more once-over before it’s perfect.

For all my perfectionists out there, all the women who feel they have to be good at everything? You only have to be good at some things, things that matter to you (and okay, the person who pays your salary.)

It’s okay if you’re not good at a thing. You can even say it out loud, and teach a woman like me an important lesson.

*Which is our right, just like it’s someone’s right to share their pain and sorrow.

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5 comments

  1. Bedankt voor deze toffe blog! Hier ga ik nog even een dagje of wat mee rondlopen. Veel over nadenken. En dan hopelijk uiteindelijk toepassen.

    Groetjes

  2. Hi Lianne,
    Thanks for such fun and honest post. I came across this post while searching for self-help book reviews, but your thoughts came at a really good time in my life.
    As a perfectionist, I’m just starting to realize that it’s OKAY to have significant flaws. I love seeming like a perfect, indelibly reliable person, but I’ve realized that only insecure people want to be seen that way.
    I think the reason that the two successful women you met so casually identified their mistakes is that they know they have other merits to hold them up. Their confidence doesn’t rely on their reputation being a singularly flawless human. They can be multi-faceted, with some weak facets, because they know they’ll still be okay. We perfectionists just need that self-confidence!
    So thank you again for helping me come to that realization. I really like your blog, and if you have time, feel free to scan through my blog, where I review self-help books and try to reach “aha” self-help moments just like the one I had on your blog today. Thanks and have a wonderful day!

    Sincerely,
    Shalini