The One Skill I Had To Get Better At Quickly


I feel horrible when I’m bad at something.

When I started my first business, I was bad at dealing with partners, employees, money, expenses, and negotiation.

There’s no way to start a business without being bad at those things. People who are good, are good because they spent ten years being bad.

Note: You have to love being incompetent in order to be competent.

That’s the true test that you will be able to get better at whatever in life you love strongly enough to get better at.

I had to give myself permission to be incompetent at business, at relationships , at parenting. I’m still mostly incompetent.But maybe a little better.

When I started my first business I had one skill: people liked me. I hate to say that’s a skill but it is.

I was always so ugly as a kid (my personal opinion of myself) that I forced myself to be as likable as possible to overcompensate.

And then, when I had a job interviewing people at three in the morning, I practiced even more. Why?

Because if a couple is arguing at three in the morning on a street corner in a ghetto, how can I go up to them and say, “Hey, what are you guys arguing about?” and make them comfortable with me in three seconds.

You only have three seconds. I know this because if they are not comfortable within three seconds, then an angry, drunk couple at three in the morning in New York City will either spit on you, throw something at you, or try to hit you. All three of those things happened to me.

So I had to get better. I was really shy just walking up to people. But in a three year period I interviewed about 1000 people at 3am and learned to get good.

I can do the BS thing and say, “here are 10 ways to get people to like you in three seconds” but I don’t think there’s a shortcut. I had to find the worst, most uncomfortable situation and get people to like me in that situation over and over and over.

And over.

Later when I started a business, the main skill set I had was treating the CEO of AmericanExpress like an unfriendly prostitute at 3 in the morning and then I would get the deal.

I had other skills. But they didn’t matter. I could program a computer, for instance. But a lot of people who program computers can’t talk to people. I know this because I went to school with all of them.

I can’t think of a shortcut because I am the most scared, shy person in the world in any social situation.

When I was little, my grandfather would pick me up and carry me to another little boy and force me to introduce myself but I would start crying and he would get upset and hit me.

Later, when I was in a new camp, I literally couldn’t open my mouth. All of the other kids thought there was something wrong with me. Eventually,the camp didn’t know what to do with me and my parents just let me stay at home.

And when I started to like girls (and then women), for many years I had to play a role in order to open my mouth. I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t.

My self-esteem was such a difficult burden for me to carry around I had to constantly let others take care of it for me. That’s a bad mistake.

Sooner or later, they can’t carry your self-esteem for you and you fall apart. I try not to do that anymore.

So I knew talking to people at three in the morning would be really hard for me.

And I knew doing sales at a business would be really hard for me.

And I knew that meeting someone I loved and somehow expressing myself to them in an authentic way would be really hard for me.

And I knew that going to a party and making friends, or even talking to my own friends would be really hard for me.

And I knew having a podcast and talking to complete strangers about all the challenges life had for them would be really hard for me.

So I guess that’s the key, and now I guess I can write the bullshit.

A) Identify one thing you love that is really hard for you.
B) Do it
C) Repeat B a lot.

Then you move from incompetent to competent. From competent to mastery. From mastery to virtuosity. [Thanks to my friend, Mark Ford, for breaking it for me into these four categories. It’s very true.]

I have never seen a short cut.

I’ve been writing for 25 years. Almost every day. I few weeks ago someone wrote a comment on one of my posts, “this guys seems like he needs medication but if he took it maybe he wouldn’t write like this.”

I’m glad so many medical professionals take time out of their busy day to give me a diagnosis on social media. I guess that is what the “sharing economy” is all about.

All I know is:

I walk around and sometimes wake myself up. I think: I’m from another planet and this is my first second on Earth. What do I do now? What!?

At that moment I pretend I am bad at everything and I need to look at everyone RIGHT NOW and start figuring things out.

From the point of view of an alien the world is a scary and exciting place. Something to learn.

One of these days I will move from incompetent to competent at doing

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  • Lee

    As a woman my motto is “Suck everyday, you just might get good at it.” I mean this literally and sometimes figuratively too.

    • Millsy Kooksy


  • Thanks for this wonderful post. The following paragraph captures the purpose of life so beautifully well: “Then you move from incompetent to competent. From competent to mastery. From mastery to virtuosity. [Thanks to my friend, Mark Ford, for breaking it for me into these four categories. It’s very true.]”. Maybe you should write one complete post only on the above. Or, maybe a series of posts would perhaps do more justice than just one since this is such a profound thought! Thanks again.

    • anne lee

      Yes, it is wonderful.:-) , but your advice looks like you not only don’t completely understand this post, but also you browses just only this posts too.:-) is it right?:-)

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  • johncc57

    I like the way you use humor in response to the “medical professionals” offering their diagnoses and advice on social media.

  • My brother is one of the nicest guys I know. He’s a genuinely likable guy. Were it not for his insane likability he would also be the biggest loser I know. I have about half of his likableness but twice as much competence. Which makes us about equally successful…

    Took me years to figure out how he had not fallen on his face hard enough to not get back up. But he does. Every single time.

  • queenkow

    I thought he was going to start talking about backgammon.

  • IamSherise

    Love it!

  • Tom

    Love the brutal HONESTY here!

    I resonate so much with this subject. And thanks for the quick tips James!

    I’m gonna share it to my followers.
    Tom :)

  • Captain Mike Rides

    As a fellow introvert, I understand the difficulties you went through to get to where you’re at now. And you’re right. Only by forcing myself to do something that made me feel like I was going to pass out over and over does it first get easier to do, then get better at doing it.

  • Kevin Redick

    Awesome post! If we’re honest, we all must push through fears either personal, professional, and most likely both. Thank you James!

  • Nathan Mueller

    That got really cheesy at the end, nonetheless great post! This is like one of those things that everyone needs to hear at some point to remind them how stupid all the bullshit is :)

  • Brett Keens

    Hi James, I was introduced to your terrific work about two years ago by by sister-in-law. She said she thought I’d really like this guy. Well she was correct. I appreciate all you do. Your integrity and honesty flows unabated…

  • Brett Keens

    I just read the previous post from a couple years ago and left a comment…I need not repeat it again except to say…Thanks for being you James!

  • Marina Garner

    What if what I really want to be competent at requires multiple skills? I want to be the best college teacher (sorry! I know your opinion about college) ever. However, for me to be the best teacher ever, I need to master at least four skills: reading (to absorb good content in a responsible way), clarity, public speaking and likeability. If that is the case (and I think it is), then what is the skill I should be repeating everyday? It’s not like backgammon, that I can just play that one game every single day and master it.

  • Yuki Davidoff

    “People who are good, are good because they spent ten years being bad.” So true. The only way to get better is to do the thing… there’s no way around it. Thanks for sharing!