How To Be Kinda Good At Anything | 2022-02-14 00:00:00 -0800

I’d noticed that, as of late, tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) communities have been discussing the “Matt Mercer Effect” again. In case you’ve never heard of it, Matt Mercer is a member of the cast of Critical Role, a streaming series where professional actors play Dungeons And Dragons (DnD) together. Specifically he takes the role of Dungeon Master (DM), the person who sets and manages the overall story and facilitates play.

Matt is incredible at his work. He can narrate the architecture of a fantasy village for five minutes on end and you’ll hang on his every word. He has a funny character voice for every person the players meet as the story unfolds. He’s vibrant and full of energy and makes everything feel like a old timey radio drama unfolding before you.

He’s also a professional actor, facilitating a troupe of actors who are his close friends, and he’s been actively working on his skills as a DM for two decades. People see Critical Role and get excited for playing DnD, seek out a local game, and then get frustrated at their DM that they’re not Matt Mercer. Similarly, a lot of new DMs start running games having “be Matt Mercer” or “make my own Critical Role” as goals, and then become disillusioned when their game doesn’t go as well.

There has been a totally reasonable response to this, championed by Matt and other professional TTRPG streamers, and it’s also a very real one people need to hear: “We aren’t you; you aren’t us. We make shows to delight an audience; your game is for you and your players and not an audience. Focus on being the best you can be and on having fun and making one another happy. That’s the point of playing TTRPGs.” They are absolutely correct, and as someone raised in the 1980s, I absolutely boggle at the idea that people can now play TTRPGs on the Internet and attract an audience and sponsorship. TTRPGs, for most of my life, were not things you even mentioned playing unless you were among other geeks and nerds. For a big part of my childhood, interest in DnD might even be a clue you were at risk of being involved in drugs, crime, or “Satanism”.

While many TTRPG pro-streamers have great advice when it comes to refocusing yourself away from the impacts of the Matt Mercer Effect, there’s actually a pattern in here that I recognize as something destructive to my joy from my own life, and so, I want to offer a remedy. I want to talk about how you actually focus on yourself and your own process and on developing skills for fulfillment rather than results. Doing so has been nothing short of life-changing for me, and I think more people could benefit from approaching their interests in a different way.

Among my friends, I’m often referred to as someone who seems to be involved in everything, successful in multiple projects, always with some new weird and crazy thing I’m trying out. Sometimes I have an award, achievement, or other little plaudit to show for it; often, I don’t, but I’m having a grand time with what I’m doing. In either case, my life is rich and full and has the occasional fun award or achievement to show for it, so I reckon I’m doing it right.

I actually spent much of my young adulthood holding myself to extreme standards and setting lofty results-based goals for myself, even if I didn’t have the foggiest clue how to achieve them. I believed doing this was essential to cultivating excellence. It turns out this left me constantly disappointed in myself, frustrated, and even paralyzed to start things. It was only through cultivating a more relaxed and exploratory attitude to my pursuits that I started to find a method to throwing myself into things I want to learn, and it’s taken me all sorts of places. The key? Not setting out to be great at things, but setting out to be “kinda good” at things and seeing where things go next. So, without further ado, here is…

The Rhett Aultman Method For Being Kinda Good At Anything

Ground rules first. This won’t make you “actually good” at everything, and “kinda good” uses “people who don’t do the thing at all” as a point of reference. Why? Because that’ll be most people, relative to you. Becoming actually good at something, or even great at something, happens after this part. Becoming a professional at something is its own separate work track after being kinda good. Also, “anything” is intentional hyperbole. There will be lots of things you’ll ditch early on. I’ll never even get to kinda good at painting, playing the mandolin, or basketball. This is more of an “anything” in the sense that you’ll be able to enjoy, experience, and find competence in a lot of things, and be unafraid to at least give anything a shot.

When I need an example, I’m going to talk about my recent explorations into DJing.

  1. Find something that looks really fun. This can come from anywhere…watching TV or streams on the Internet, seeing friends do something, going to shows… what-have-you. Be sure, though, that you satisfy two criteria: that it’s a concrete activity (not a nebulous “be good at something”), and that it looks like fun to you. Example: I’ve had friends who were DJs before, and I enjoy music, including dance music, so the idea of messing around with music and making my garage into a lowkey dance party sounded fun.

  2. Figure out what the fun part is. This is a very important step that you cannot skip out on, and for a very good reason. Being even kinda good at something is going to take practice and work, and it’s going to frustrate you from time to time, so you need to identify the fun and satisfying parts of it so that you can focus on those things and return to them. Note that this cannot be some sort of reward connected to being kinda good at the thing. Getting paid to do the thing, or being famous for being kinda good at the thing, are not acceptable answers here. You need to find the core of the fun in it. Example: Learning what all the controls on a DJ kit do, how DJing works, how dance music is structured, etc, is intrinsically fun. I also expect I’ll get a big squee if I make a transition sound cool.

  3. Figure out the minimum effort to get to the fun. Time and frustration are valuable resources. Do not squander them. Have a taste of the fun as fast as possible. Most programming tutorials start with something simple like printing “Hello world!” on the screen. It’s short and simple enough that a beginner can copy it verbatim, it checks that your tools work, and it gives a dose of dopamine to see you can write a program. Most things have a “Hello world!” you can do. Set this as your first goal. This will also be a place you can go back to when you feel stuck. I know people who start every computer program they write by doing “Hello world!” again. Additionally, do not distract yourself with extra skills that don’t get you to this first hit of fun. Example: My “Hello world!” for DJing was loading a song into each deck, playing one, then fading out and fading in the next. This requires minimal skill and can be learned right away.

  4. Pick modest goals and focus learning and practice only on them. Again, the goal here is to maximize fun while minimizing the time spent being frustrated. Pick a goal that starts with what you know from the previous step but lets you reach for more. Focus only on the skills it takes to get this goal. Don’t worry if this means you’re skipping skills you need to be a serious pro. If someone says “you’re making bad habits that’ll slow you down later,” ask what “later” means and see if it fits your hopes. If it doesn’t, then cut corners. Example: One of the core skills of DJing is beatmatching, where you sync up two tracks’ rhythms using only your ears and manual controls. Digital DJ setups now include automatic beat sync by algorithm. DJ instructors will tell you that you shouldn’t rely on this, but the reason is “because club equipment might not have it” or “because it doesn’t always work”. This doesn’t matter in my goals. I don’t want to play clubs. I might never even play on a friend’s equipment. So, I’m putting off beat matching. I’ll learn it later. If I needed to know it or I’d have trouble doing the things I want, I’d learn it sooner.

  5. If you need equipment, don’t go cheap and don’t go expensive. Most creative pursuits involve at least some modest amount of tools. If tools are an essential part of doing the thing, please understand that you do get what you pay for with these kinds of things. The exception is if you’re getting into something involving software, in which case the standard tools might be open source software distributed freely. But get some advice or review some guides. Don’t buy top-of-the-line stuff that will overwhelm you or make you feel obligated, but don’t be afraid of “the best entry-level” at a reasonable, moderate price. Example: My digital controller/mixer is a Pioneer DDJ 400. I picked this because it’s an industry standard entry level deck, has all the main features, and is supported by virtually every digital DJ software package out there. For software? I could be using RecordBox or Serato, but since I actually use Linux for everything, I went with Mixxx, a free and open source DJ package that, with a little fiddling, gets me what I need.

  6. Put in the time and work. You’ve turned your ideas of fun, and your hopes for more fun, into a set of steps that look within reach. Now comes the part that might get frustrating. You’ve got to start doing reps. Every skill has small fiddly parts to it that you can’t see from a distance. Practice is there to sort the fiddly stuff out. There will likely be more of it than you expect. The trick here is to keep the focus narrow. Focus on getting one small thing better than before. Note I didn’t say “right”. I said “better than before.” Example: I have my deck, my software, some tracks, and an idea about how to do a transition. So it’s time to put in the reps. Something you can’t learn from a tutorial? How to have the courage to confidently twist those equalizer knobs at the right time. I just put in the time, loading tracks, syncing, starting, bringing them in, and…making more than a few messy transitions.

  7. Critique, don’t criticize. While you’re doing the work, you need to generate feedback and turn it into actionable steps. You can do this with a friend or a coach, but ultimately, you’re going to be alone with yourself more than with other people, so it’s good to learn to be your own coach. Practice observing what you do and the results and, instead of thinking of them as “good” or “bad”, instead as “what to try next time.” There will be many next times. Look, listen, find what you want to change, and focus on that again. Example: I’m trying to make a transition between the tracks, but it came out messy. Okay…why? Hm. It felt like I was supposed to swap the bass beats quickly on the first beat, but hesitated and came in late. Let’s do it again, and focus on not hesitating.

  8. Accept some disappointment. Ira Glass once famously said that people doing creative work often feel disappointed in themselves because they’ve had years to develop good taste but haven’t practiced their craft long enough for their ability to match their taste. He then demonstrated an utterly terrible NPR news segment he produced after years on the job. Hopefully, though the power of simplifying your needs and expectations, you won’t need years to do something that impresses you. Still, you’re going to go through a period where you feel like you suck. The most important thing to remember at this point is that everyone who came before you sucked, too. You are not alone. Your suckage is not unique. You will continue to think you suck long after others tell you you don’t suck. You will often feel short of your mark. This is something most people feel, and this only improves when you…focus on the fun, keep doing the work, and critique without criticism. Example: My track tranitions are messy, and I can hear them. I don’t always bring in the right elements at the right time. But it’s okay. I’m doing the process, putting in the effort, and letting it be. I need to gain experience. I do that by being messy. Being messy is part of the process.

  9. Process, not product. Yes, eventually a creative pursuit is going to make products, and you might even have a goal of making a product others consume. But every creative product is the result of a creative process. Lightning bolts from above inspiring people to greatness happen, but they’re peak moments. The rest of it is the result of a creative person iterating and iterating, working on their process, building up a body of work and then selecting the best examples for others to see. That painting in a museum was the result of countless studies, sketches, and noodling through things. So, don’t focus on the results of your process. Focus on doing your process and tweaking little things in it. Do you today, and build the tools to be kinda good. Example: Most great DJ sets are structured, planned performances. The DJ planned out a set list, marked all the tracks with cue points, left notes about where to do a trick or apply an effect, and rehearsed. Focusing on matching that level of product is not where I’m at. I need the tools to understand that process, shich means a lot of listening to music, playing it, doing jam session mixes for friends, and building my tastes and instincts for what might make a good set. I’m sure I’ll get to set planning, but I’m having fun building muscle memory and honing my sense for where I like to mix things.

  10. Rest and refocus on fun. You will plateau. You will get burned out. You will need time away. It’s okay. This is supposed to bring joy and love to your life, not become another job. Back off and do something else. Your mind is actually still working on the problem anyway. Come back a few weeks later when you feel the urge to. You’ll be rusty, but you’ll get it back. When you’re ready to get back to it, go back to the simple things that were fun. Revisit them. They’re not beneath you, and you’ve changed since the last time you did them. Greet them like an old friend and catch up with them. Example: I sometimes don’t try another mixing session for months when I get busy, tired, or overwhelmed. It’s a creative interest and life comes first. But after even a couple of weeks away, I go back to watching the occasional tutorial, listening to a DJ’s podcast, crate diving on Beatport, etc.

  11. Share your joy with others, if you want. For some people, it’s enough to just do their thing on their own. And for them, I say EXCELSIOR! But if something’s giving you a sense of fun or joy, and especially if you think you’re making some traction in your process, don’t be afraid to share it with others. You don’t have to put on a show if you don’t want to, but don’t be afraid to talk about your experiences, either. People who like you like seeing your joy and engagement. And they might enjoy experiencing what you’re doing, too, even if you think it still needs work. Often, they don’t experience your “mistakes” the way you do. Example: After a few sessions working on my own, I pulled out the mixer with my partners on our weekly Pizza Friday and we had a bit of a dance party. Yeah, I fucked up a few times, but so what? They didn’t care, so why should I? I just filed those mistakes as things to work on for next time. A few weeks later, we had friends over for brunching and hot tubbing, and I played a long set through the whole thing. My mistakes were minor enough that nobody even noticed, and I got some nice compliments. It’s good.

  12. Be part of a community, if you want. You are likely not the only person in the world trying to be kinda good at this thing, and it’s quite possible that whatever you might be struggling with is something others are, too. This is where joining a community, either local or online, can be helpful. Sometimes, if you work at one of your mini-goals and it’s just not coming together, what you need is another perspective, and this is what other people can offer you. However, it’s important you do two things– bring your “critique, not criticize” voice with you and stay savvy for toxic people who will try to damage your joy. Communities are not for tearing others down, ranking out, or wallowing in despair of your challenges. Don’t do these things, and if others are doing those things, politely find another community. Find people who are sharing the joy and passion you have, who are lifting each other up, and who coach each other without criticism or judgment. Example: I’m not active in a DJing community, but I definitely know how to find one if I want one. I paid a small fee for a set of instructional videos, and the teacher in them, who is a genuinely happy person and teaches without judgment, also offers a Facebook group and a Discord server for people who are working with his materials. They’re there to provide camraderie, support, and opportunities to get your feet wet streaming your DJing sessions, if you want. If they turned out to be toxic people, though? No biggie. There are others out there.

  13. It’s not a competition. This is not a guide to competing for the top spot in a field. This is a guide to getting some understanding and competence in a creative pursuit so you can experience life and have fun. Focus on you, your process, your fun, your joy. Yes, you can iterate and focus on your process and get better and climb rungs. What gets lost along the way, though, is that the people you look up to aren’t really having that much more fun than you are, and many of them are struggling to remember when doing this thing was fun to them. Example: Yeah, sure, I watch dance festival footage and see DJs having big sets to huge crowds and partying it up. Sure looks like fun. What’s not fun is being exhausted from the multiple plane flights, sound check being completely messed up, someone before you dropping a track you planned on using and now you’ve got to change it up, worrying you’re going to lose the crowd, the hangovers after the parties, etc, etc. Plus, what happens when the music’s not even that much fun anymore? I’m happier throwing out some speakers by the pool and jamming with some friends over.

  14. It’s okay to be mediocre. Are you enjoying yourself? Are you not being a horrible pile of cringe and alienating your friends and loved ones? Then, great. Be as mediocre at the thing as you care to be. This is the guide to getting kinda good at anything. Besides, you might find you become less mediocre over time just because you love putting in the effort. Example: My mixing is definitely mediocre in objective standards. But it’s for me, and it makes me happy, and the occasional friend also enjoys it. That’s just fine. I don’t need it to earn a living, and I don’t want to be famous.

  15. It’s okay to quit. The stigma against quitting is absurd. The truth is that most people are going to find a plateau somewhere. It might be on your first mini-goal or after years of work, but you’ll find a place where you’ll conclude the work to proceed is more than you want to put in, and you can either hang out on the plateau you’re at, knowing you’ve enjoyed getting there, or you can decide maybe your original goals weren’t all you thought they were. In the latter case, you’re basically quitting. And guess what? That’s not only normal; it’s good. There’s this stigma around quitting. People say that quitters never win. That’s absolute nonsense. Winners quit all the things that weren’t serving the narrow thing they’re winners at; that’s generally how they got the time and energy to be elite in one thing. You want to explore things and quit the ones that don’t bring you good things. You need to do that. But do one thing while you’re quitting. Reflect on the journey and what you learned, and reflect on why you quit. I promise you that, later in life, being able to say to someone “Oh, I used to so a little of that kind of thing, but I quit because…” will lead to interesting, thoughtful conversation and maybe even a meaningful connection.

  16. It’s okay to come back to it later. If you feel the urge to try again…try again! Be okay with starting over. Maybe you found a new angle on the thing. Maybe the tools have changed since your last try. Maybe you’ve changed, because you’ve been doing other things and now your intuitions are different. Quitting and coming back later can, in fact, be part of your process. Example: This actually covers 15 and 16. I tried to learn to DJ about 20 years ago, when vinyl was still a major medium and digital DJing was basically unheard of. I couldn’t get the hang of beatmatching on vinyl, and it was such a prerequisite that I just couldn’t get anywhere with it and I gave up pretty quickly. But the desire was still there, so I tried again now that technology changed, and it made a difference. And now, with a different learning curve and the chance to use visual cues to reinforce auditory ones, I’m sure I’ll be manual beatmatching when I’m ready to tackle it. But I don’t have to, and that makes the difference.

In the spirit of being kinda good at things, let me sum up by saying that I’m probably only kinda good at being kinda good at things, and so this process itself is probably not as perfect as it could be. But it’s worked kinda good for me, and it makes me happy, and maybe there’s someone else out there who’ll find it encouraging on their journey. Really, this is all about reframing away from the Protestant fixation on work and “gifts” as the sole source of happiness and success, and instead towards exploration, curiosity, and happiness. In that spirit, to you who have read this far, I wish you well in going forth and being kinda good at anything!