I suck at Volleyball, and nearly everything else too.
”Do you know how to dig?”
I turned and looked at the referee. He was talking to me.
“Aren’t you going to wait for your teammate?”, the ref yelled at my teammates who were filing out of the gym to the post-game bar.
“I’ll see you guys there.” I lied.
I turned back to him. He had my full attention now, and my ego ground up underneath his sneakers.
He continued, smiling, “You were lifting out there”, making a ridiculous impression of my form.
I cringed. “I know.”
He leaned in, “I get it, you just don’t know what you’re doing.”
“This is how you do it. You put your hands like this, and it makes your arms broad, which makes more surface to control the ball. The way you were doing it made them more round. Look.”
He bounced the ball around a few times. I looked.
I asked him a few questions. We hit it back and forward.
“You’re not bad. You move around, you can hit it. I just don’t want to call you out again.”
I thanked him, we traded names, and I left the gym.
Walking home, I started to think.
This happens a lot. I have this conversation a lot. I feel like this a lot.
A few hours before the volleyball game, I was in a meeting. The usual participants were there. Myself, a product manager, an engineer. The agile tri-force. We were looking at a view of an app that I had designed, and the engineer wasn’t happy with my solution.
In a manner of minutes it was described as weird, an awkward interaction and a UX hack. I sat there and listened.
The product manager glanced at me. My teammates shook their heads on the sidelines. It was the same thing.
It hurt. It stung the same as the referee calling me out in front of my peers. In both cases my skills were put into question, and in both cases my skills were questionable.
If this all sounds incredibly depressing, it wasn’t.
There’s two principles I believe in, that are life buoys in the situations I just described.
The metric that truly matters is what other people think of you.
I could think I am a highly competent designer, or volleyball player, but if all my teammates disagree, it isn’t true.
The trouble is, it’s hard to adopt that mindset. We tend to believe that our self-views are more accurate than everyone else’s. It’s hard to open yourself up to that level of criticism, to deflate your ego and get punched in the face by reality. Over and over and over. But it’s necessary. To improve, and to get out of your own head. That brings me to the second point.
Preparation, and performance, are basically the only ways to get better at stuff.
Think about a fight. You can’t ‘win’ a fight without being a stronger, more skilled (more competent) fighter. You can’t lift a heavy weight unless you’re strong. You can’t sell a lot of books, without writing something other people want to read. There are obviously other factors, but competence can’t be ignored (or faked).
When I learn new things, or perform new things, I keep this in mind.
For example, I don’t know much about user research. I don’t pretend to. I don’t write it on my resume, but it’s something I’d like to improve in my skill-set.
So, I read. I practice. I watch others who are competent. I ask them questions. I write to people who have mastered it, and ask them even more questions. I put in time and effort, and get feedback.
I still make mistakes. And I still feel terrible when I make them.
When you have skin in the game, this is going to happen. But understanding those two models, have helped me in a small way.
So, I grin and bear it. And it’s not that bad.