You’re Bad At What?!

by | Oct 10, 2014

You’re bad at what?!

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Something is bothering me.

I have been traveling a lot lately, meeting new people and catching up with old friends. I keep hearing the same statements over and over again, and they usually start with, “I’m bad at…” or “I’ve never been any good at…”

You know those statements. “I am bad with names.” “My memory is bad.” “I am nervous in front of crowds.” “I am bad at math.” “I am not artistic.”

Maybe I’m overly sensitive to these statements because of the nature of my work. Still, in the last three weeks of travel, I have heard some variation of that statement at least a dozen times – from the mouths of educated, professional people.

My knee jerk reaction is to interrupt them with, “You’re wrong! It’s a lie! You have a fabulous memory! You just have too much going on at once.”

And that is the truth.

We all have incredible memories and an uncanny ability to learn and retain information.

So what gives? Is there some pride in being bad with names or proclaiming that you have a lousy short-term memory?

To be fair, even I do it from time to time. However, one thing I learned to do is rephrase my mantra (because that is what it is – more on that in a moment) so that it is past tense. That way, I am no longer limiting my ability to improve in the future.

For example, I wasn’t any good at chemistry. I know that I could become at least competent at it now if it became necessary or desirable to do so.

For me, changing the mantra to past tense lifted away the feeling of powerlessness that came with the “I am” statement. Your ability to learn changes daily with the level of stress, diet, sleep, and many other factors. Why limit yourself?

 Ditch the limiting mantra and unshackle your brain!

What is a mantra? It is when you tell yourself something over and over again until it feels/is true. Considering the frequency and ease with which they roll off of the tongues of intelligent people, they are likely repeated often enough to qualify as mantras.

Mantras work – good or bad!

In a 2006 study, the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs discovered that veterans who repeated a simple, positive mantra were better able to manage PTSD, calm road rage, and keep exercise interesting. [1]

A 2014 psychological study done at UCLA sampled 2,379 girls in various parts of the United States. The results were adjusted for factors including race, income, and actual weight at the beginning of the study. Researchers found that girls who were told that they were fat at age 10 were almost twice as likely to be obese by age 19. Moreover, the more the fat label was reinforced, the more obese they became.

“That means it’s not just that heavier girls are called too fat and are still heavy years later; being labeled as too fat is creating an additional likelihood of being obese.” [2]

The key variable was that they were labeled as fat from an outside source. That label likely became a mantra… “I’m fat.” That mantra became an internal truth and an external reality.

What are you telling yourself about your abilities?

What are you telling other people about your abilities?

If it’s not positive, consider changing it to something that is, because the things we say to ourselves become beliefs that shape everything we do. I have encountered people who even changed career paths based on beliefs like, “I’m not good enough at biology to be a doctor.”

Our beliefs around learnable skills can have a big impact on our ability to learn them! Those beliefs are often rooted in distorted and generalized feelings that are based on a single, impactful experience. You can turn it around!

Here is the single most impactful experience that led to me spending the majority of my life under the false assumption that I was “bad at math.”

I had a teacher tell me that I would “never be any good at math.” She was my second grade teacher at one of the best private elementary schools in my hometown. She was so fed up with me that by mid semester I was instructed to drag my desk to the back of the room every day during math time so she would not have to “bother with me.”

Oh the shame I felt!

Well, about 18 years later – after a lifetime of sucking at math – I HAD to learn it and learn it well. I sure showed her (and me)!

In order to test out of remedial math, I retook my ACT and brought my math score up from 5 to 19 (really). I then ended up in a math class that was over my head. I took 2 math classes and a statistics class in two semesters. But they we not just regular semesters…

One was an 18-hour spring semester. The other was a 16-hour summer semester – with a 45-minute commute. I was also running a full time business. I made A’s and graduated with a 3.7 grade point average!

You know what? I love statistics and…


I actually enjoy it. I can do it in my head. I always could – but someone told me that I couldn’t and I believed it. It was a lie!! It was a lie that I internalized and spent years believing to be true.

Funny how those limitations melted away in the face of necessity.

Yours can, too!


[1] Jill E. Bormann PhD RN, Doug Oman PhD, Jeanne K. Kemppainen PhD RN, Sheryl Becker MS RN, Madeline Gershwin MA RN and Ann Kelly MS RN. Article first published online: 22 FEB 2006

Mantram repetition for stress management in veterans and employees: a critical incident study;DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2006.03752.x

[2]Jeffrey M. Hunger, A. Janet Tomiyama. Weight Labeling and Obesity. JAMA Pediatrics, 2014; DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.122