What I’ve Learned from Being Bad [Not the Misbehavin’ Kind of Bad]


By Jill O’Mahony Stewart

My goal when I took up golf in my early 50s was to “not be terrible.” So, I took lessons. And I’m not terrible. I hit the ball straight because that’s how I was taught. Not far, but straight. And I rarely lose balls, nor do I spend much time poking around in the woods, risking thorn bush scratches or the dreaded poison ivy.

And I really love playing golf, despite my limited skill level.

My unexpected bonus to learning and loving golf is appreciating golf tournaments on TV. I had thought they were beyond boring, but now I view the skill and athleticism of the players in a way that would not have been possible without knowing the game and its many challenges better.

Recently, I took up the ukulele, figuring it was one of the easier stringed instruments for a beginner.  Again, I started with lessons to avoid self-taught bad habits and to impose discipline. The internet has an amazing amount of free instructional content on chords, fret exercises and warm-ups for senior fingers, and even tutorials on the specific songs I want to learn [Ram On, Over the Rainbow]. Google and the weekly Zoom class have coached me along as I strum chord progressions slowly but steadily.

I’m OK being bad, and I’ve acquired a new appreciation for the skill and discipline of all musicians. I watch live music differently now, too, knowing each string-playing musician is attending to the left hand, the right hand, rhythm, strumming, volume, speed, and lyrics. Don’t even get me started on watching the percussionists.

So, what does all this beginner stuff have to do with writing better? Nearly everything.

If we have an open mind, a beginner’s mind, we can learn new things. In the case of writing, we can build on what we already know. Even in mid- or late-career, we can learn new things that enhance one of the most critical skills required of communicators: good writing. Each of us needs to define “good” and identify the steps necessary to achieve “good” to improve our own writing as well as what we write for our organizations and clients. There are many paths to getting there. Determining for ourselves what’s in need of fixin’ is the goal. Even serious, already-good writers should have a personal prescription for continuing to improve.

The author’s dad Chuck O’Mahony, pictured here in front of a glider tow plane, took up photography and learned to pilot sailplanes in his mid-50s. He inspired his daughter to be a lifelong learner – a lesson she carries into her DePaul classrooms.

Listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Miracle and Wonder,” I discovered that Paul Simon’s dad, also a musician, earned a PhD in linguistics in his 50s. Simon himself has been on a lifelong journey of musical exploration and is an example to us all. Similarly, my own dad learned both photography and how to pilot a glider in his 50s. Those pursuits, combined with his considerable writing skill, gave him a second career covering international glider competitions as a writer/photographer who understood the sport firsthand as a glider pilot himself.

In my business writing workshops and college writing classes, I implore professionals and students alike to become life-long learners. Graduation, aka “commencement,” is the beginning of our learning, not the end. Sometimes we are seeking mastery; other times we simply want to become better spectators or audience members. Either way, setting goals and identifying specific steps to become a lifelong learner will serve us well. Being comfortable with being “bad” is a good start.

Golf photo by Mike Cox on Unsplash
Jill O’Mahony Stewart is a communications consultant specializing in coaching writing skills. She is also an adjunct faculty member of DePaul University’s College of Communication. She’s a pretty good proofreader and working to become a better one.

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