When was the last time you did something, and put your whole heart into it, even though you knew you would suck? If the answer is "never" or "not in a very, very long time," now is the time to try it again.
That's a lesson you can learn from the amazing life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy society figure in the 1930s and 1940s, and possibly the worst singer in history. Despite her complete inability to sing on-key, Jenkins performed regularly for more than 40 years, mostly in private performances and finally, in the last months of her life, at Carnegie Hall. All her performances, including that last one, were given in front of sold-out crowds: She was so exquisitely bad, and so flamboyantly out there in both her performances and her costumes, that she unwittingly created priceless comic theater. Enrico Caruso was a fan. So was Cole Porter, who reportedly had to bang his own foot with his cane to avoid laughing out loud, but almost never missed a performance.
Jenkins is beautifully portrayed in an Oscar-nominated performance by Meryl Streep in a fantastic and startlingly accurate movie, right down to the horrendous singing. I thought the badness of the singing in the movie was exaggerated for comic effect, but no. Wikipedia has a clip of the real Jenkins singing and it sounds exactly the same as Meryl Streep's hysterically bad wailing. (Here it is. It's only 23 seconds long, which will be enough.)
There's evidence that she was aware of how badly she sucked. For instance, she was very careful to only allow people she knew would be supportive into her concerts. Still, when she sang, she gave it her all. She didn't sort of sing, she didn't act shy or self-conscious, she tackled the most challenging arias there are, and she wore lavish costumes of her own design while doing it. In the middle of her Carnegie Hall performance, she put her hands on her hips and did a circular dance that was so hilariously bad that a prominent actress had to be carried out of her box because she was laughing so hard. Jenkins devoted her whole life to her badly-sung music and she didn't do things by half-measures. Neither should any of us.
While I'm not suggesting you should build your career around something you're laughably bad at, all of us can benefit from regularly doing things we're terrible at. Here's why:
1. You learn a lot more.
I know this because of the many years I've spent riding horses even though I truly suck at it. I'm not athletic, I have terrible balance, and I tend to let horses intimidate me. And I can be horribly clumsy--once while trying to spring gracefully into the saddle I accidentally vaulted over the top of the horse and fell to the ground on the other side. With a lot of struggle I managed to claw my way from totally hopeless to semi-competent, which is as good as I'll ever be. I kept at it because I love it, even though I'm not good at it. But I learned more about myself and about what my strengths and weaknesses are from riding than from nearly anything else I've ever done.
2. It forces you out of your comfort zone.
Few things in life feel as right as doing something you know you excel at. Few things push you as far outside your comfort zone as doing something you know you can't do well. Learning to push yourself past your comfort zones is a key skill for all forms of success, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
3. It gets you past your fear of embarrassment.
So often in life, we let fear hold us back, and most of the time we're not afraid of actual harm, we're afraid of making fools of ourselves. That fear of looking foolish is one of the most debilitating things we learn as children, and most of us carry that fear throughout our lives.
If you do something you suck at, you're going to look foolish--there's almost no avoiding it. That's a good feeling to get used to. Just imagine the things you could accomplish if fear of looking foolish wasn't holding you back.
4. It makes you a better leader.
Most people become leaders at the things they do very well. That can make it extremely hard to empathize with employees who struggle with tasks that seem simple and straightforward to you. Undertaking something you're bad at can give you insight into that struggle, and a better idea of how to help employees improve their performance when they don't have the skills, training, or raw talent to naturally do well at something.
5. It teaches you how to fail.
There's a lot of talk about the benefits of failure and what we can all learn from failing. But you may be better off failing at something other than your main job. Tackling something you're bad at that isn't essential for your work is a great way to practice failing without damaging your career. Literally getting back on the horse after falling off (and once breaking my arm in a particularly clumsy fall) helped me learn some important lessons about how to bounce back.
"People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing," Jenkins once remarked. Wouldn't it be great if they could say that about all of us?