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It’s Okay to Feel Like an Idiot

By Anna Kuzmenko on Shutterstock

That doesn’t mean you are one.


June 13, 2021

Let me count the ways I’ve felt I acted like an idiot or thought I appeared to be an idiot. No, I won’t because they’re endless.

Whether I looked like an idiot or just felt like one, my take-away from those experiences is that I learned something useful from every single one of them.

Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want or think they should. But more often than not, they work out the only way they can. And from that, we can learn how to do things differently.

Quality of life is all about the learnings. And we can’t learn if we’re not willing to mess up (feel or look like an idiot). We humans are the only species that consistently learns through failure. Think about it. Birds fly a few days after they hatch. Newborn calves go right to the teat, and newborn colts stand up.

Baby humans lie there crying until somebody helps them do something. Eventually, we figure out how to roll over and even get on our knees, and everybody takes a picture. But then we fall down and conk our head on the coffee table until we figure out how to grab onto the table and stand up.

We learn through trial and error. It’s inevitable, sometimes we’re going to at least feel, if not look, like an idiot. Here are some examples of how a mistake becomes our teacher.

Not being an expert.

I’m embarrassed to say how far I was into writing my blog before I read the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

I thought I was a writer because I wrote. What I learned is that my first drafts are usually dreck.

In his book, Zinsser includes a two-page heavily edited draft. His comment was, “You probably saw this and thought it was the first draft. It was my fifth edit, and it still wasn’t ready.”

I am sleeping on all my drafts and coming back at them the next morning. Every single time, with no exceptions, I see how I can be more clear, tightening up a wandering thought or paragraph.

I still feel embarrassed when I look back at some of my earliest posts. But I know even though I feel like an idiot for posting them before their time, it’s just not true that I am an idiot. I am learning.

Flipping out when someone messes with something you own.

A client told the story of her son making dinner in one of her Teflon pans. The metal utensil he used to scrape every last drop off the bottom damaged the pan beyond repair.

Internally, she combusted. Usually, her next step would have been to shame her son for making a mistake he could have avoided, giving him instructions as though she was talking to a five-year-old.

Instead, she breathed and said nothing at that moment. Later she and her husband talked about it, and she realized it was beautiful that he was making dinner. She felt embarrassed by past rants over things that didn’t matter. Her most significant learning was this: “It’s a pan, girl, just a pan.” Pans are replaceable. Our children’s sense of self-efficacy, not so much.

So next time you’re ready to lose your ‘stuff,’ remember, it’s a pan, just a pan.

Being intensely focused on oneself.

Years ago, a friend seemed distant, and I asked her, “what have I done?” And she said, “Robyn, everything isn’t always about you.”

Wake up call. Every one of us has a life happening behind the scenes. We’re all juggling insecurities and challenges. Assuming that we are the center of anyone’s universe other than our own is a recipe for chronic suffering.

On one of many family trips to Chicago from our home in Burlington, Iowa, I saw a farmhouse set way back from the highway. In the front yard, two kids played on a swing, one pushing the other. I said to nobody in particular, “Isn’t it weird. They think the whole world revolves around them, and we believe it revolves around us. And we’ll never meet each other.”

How many things have you said or done based on the illusion that you are, or should be, the center of someone else’s universe?

Doing something to get something back (other than the warm fuzzy that always comes from giving).

A client shared her deep disappointment in her family and teenage sons.

“Nobody appreciates me. I make the kids breakfast and lunch, and then dinner for the entire family. I work from home, so I’m at their beck and call. The kids talk back, and my husband golfs all weekend. Nobody cares about me.”

My answer was, “That sounds awful. It must be tough to get up every day facing that lack of appreciation.” After a minute, I said, “The good news is that we teach people how to treat us. And that means we can teach them something different.”

When she realized she had taught them to treat her like a servant, she felt like an idiot. She did it out of love, what she thought would make everyone happy, but it backfired.

When she started giving her kids more responsibility, she was happier, and to her surprise, so were they. They stopped expecting her to make breakfast and lunch every day. And she stopped resenting them for taking advantage of all that she was giving.

She’s learning to appreciate herself, understanding that teaching people how to treat her starts with her. We all learn through trial and error. It doesn’t mean we’re idiots.

Replace self-esteem with self-efficacy.

I don’t promote self-esteem. It’s external. When we succeed at something, and someone tells us we’re great, our self-esteem rises. But what happens when we don’t win the race or hit the home run? When the praise stops, our self-esteem plummets.

On the other hand, when we cultivate self-efficacy and self-confidence, we’re not relying on external validation. Self-efficacy is the belief that we are capable of doing or achieving something. Self-confidence gives us the courage to try. They’re both inside jobs, cultivated through trial and error, with a big emphasis on error.

When one thing doesn’t work, we try another. And sometimes, when the first few tries don’t succeed, we may feel like an idiot, but that doesn’t mean we are. Most people relate to our trials and errors with loving support and encouragement. They’ve been there.

Sure, there are the parents at the softball game screaming at the coach or the kids for striking out or missing the ball. But those of us who notice when we act like an idiot outnumber them.

As Tim Denning Says in Fifteen Typical Problems and How to Solve Them, “Making an idiot of yourself is perfectly fine. What’s not fine is being perfect.” It’s okay to feel like an idiot sometimes. It means you’re alive and growing.

Much love,


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