We asked author Erika Andersen some questions about how to “be bad first,” that is, how to open up to the probability of making mistakes in the beginning of the learning process in order to quickly acquire new skills. Here’s some advice from Erika:
How do supervisors encourage their employees to “be bad first” while also maintaining high expectations?
The critical word here is “first.” Too many managers ascribe to the “be bad never” school of thought—unrealistically expecting employees to always be good at things, even things they’ve never done before. Other managers are kind of “be bad whenever”—they don’t provide clear direction or hold their folks accountable, so employees don’t even know what “good” means to their boss.
Great managers make a clear distinction between trying or learning new things, and completing agreed-upon and standard job responsibilities. When employees are learning new things, these managers give them the room to make mistakes, do things slowly, try things over and over—in other words, to be bad at first. And when people are completing responsibilities they already know how to do, these managers set high, clear standards and give their folks the resources they need to succeed.
What is the most profound example you’ve witnessed of a person improving in some measure by being bad first?
1) Each child who learns to talk or walk.
2) Everyone who has ever learned a second language.
3) Anyone who plays a sport.
4) Every people manager who becomes excellent (I challenge you to find me a manager
who’s good at giving feedback the first time).
Are there times when you have to remind yourself to be bad first? What skills are you continually looking to improve upon to help you?
Being bad first is the most difficult of the four ANEW learning skills for me. I’m pretty good at Aspiration—getting myself to want to learn things I need to learn. I’m fairy Neutrally self-aware (though it’s a constant process), and I am Endlessly curious—that’s probably my strongest learning skill. But being Willing to Be Bad First is still tough for me, even though I know it’s inevitable when learning something new.
Whenever I approach new learning, I consciously use the skills I describe in Be Bad First. I make sure my self-talk is balanced and supportive, some version of: I’m going to be bad at this to begin with, because that’s how it works. And I know I’ll improve; I’ve gotten good at lots of things. Then I look for “bridging” opportunities—that is, I try to identify skills I already have that can support me in my new learning.
For example, I recently decided to get better at speaking Spanish. I’ve known some Spanish for many years… but even though I kept saying I wanted to improve, I didn’t. Toward the end of last year I suddenly realized it was a “willingness to be bad first” problem. I hated the feeling of not knowing whether I was saying things correctly, of searching for words, of making goofy mistakes. So I decided this was a great place for me to improve my “W” skills. A new colleague of mine has very kindly agreed to be my learning partner, and I’ve found two “bridges.” I’m using the skills of memorization I’ve built over the years to help me acquire Spanish vocabulary, and my listening skills are helping me focus on my colleague so I can absorb her words better and make sure I understand what she’s saying.
I’ve found that once you begin using the ANEW skills, you start getting results fairly quickly: you become less resistant to new learning, and your learning happens faster and more easily. And that gives you more confidence that you can succeed through any kind of change.