The importance of being bad

The importance of being bad is at heart a story of difference. It may be simplistic to phrase it this way, but without difference it becomes impossible to distinguish the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’. In essence, we need the bad to show us what good looks like. And without the shadings of difference there is no progress toward which deserves the name of ‘good’, ‘better’, or ‘best’. ‘Excellent’ just doesn’t occur except in the shadows of ‘bad’. And obviously we seem to think these things matter….

So let me say that the first lesson in the importance of being bad is that we start out in our continuum of evolution with the hope that over time we will end up being less bad. The beginner within us simply wants to ‘suck’ less. But we can’t just start out with preformed excellence. It simply doesn’t work that way. And so, being bad is also important because this is our starting point, this is the root from which all our future accomplishments will grow. Consider it a prerequisite.

And to imagine that our sometimes awkward first steps never took place or didn’t matter only dishonors the necessity of that departure. It disguises the truth that it was first important to be bad in order to eventually be good. It is not misfortune that being inept always precedes aptitude. Thinking otherwise robs value out of the process of learning and puts all the weight on the (hoped for) conclusion of eventually being ‘good’.

If only the process didn’t matter, perhaps this fantasy would be credible. But life is not just about results, is it? We don’t just “teach to the test”, do we? And we call it a learning ‘curve‘ for good reason. Its not a learning flat line. Life is a process that includes both a beginning and a conclusion, but its usually what happens in between that matters most. So lets get over this abusive delusion that starting out bad didn’t matter….

But more than simply a necessary starting place, it is also important to experience our own ‘badness’ as a prod and incentive to improving. Its not just where we start but how we start. Its not just a location but an attitude. It gives us something to strive for. Progress always implicates desire. Without the dissatisfaction of being ‘bad’ we would settle into a comfort zone of incredibly low standards. It is important to be bad, and recognize ourselves as bad, because this gives us the grist for our mill. Its what we need to work on if being ‘good’ is to have sense in any meaningful way. It is our grain of sand that over time and with much dedication we hope will eventually result in a pearl being formed.

And so, it is important that we start off bad because its also important that we are challenged throughout our lives. We could of course always wilt in the face of opposition, but how fully would we be living our lives to do so? Its the struggle that defines us, that shapes the clay, that weathers the rough edges, that hones the skills and talents we bring to bear on the world. Its the traction beneath our feet that propels us forward. We all go through rough spells, and its how we respond that makes the difference. Builds character, you might say. What would a life be like that was pampered at all turns and coddled against any misfortune, difficulty, or angst? Sound like a dream? Maybe it sounds like a nightmare….

If we always started out good enough we would have no further cause to grow. We would have nothing significant against which to measure ourselves. We would be already immobilized by our self sufficiency. Without ‘bad’ we would perhaps lack the spark that lights the fire in our lives. It is the difficulty of birth that awakens us to the world. Some seeds require a hard freeze or the touch of fire to germinate. Some seeds should be scratched to get their lives started. Its the constant challenge of gravity that keeps our muscles in condition. Its the unanswered questions, the mystery still out there, that keeps our curiosity alive.

And the threat of reverting to ‘bad’ can only help to keep us on our toes. We want to do better. We want to get it right next time. We regret having messed things up. We are frustrated that things didn’t work out. We are sorry that we blew it. We lament our missed opportunities. And we also grieve for our losses. What would life be like if that were not the case? So it is also true that the importance of being bad is that ‘bad’ is a cautionary tale impelling us forward. It is simply necessary for things to come off badly in order for us to strain against the world.

But don’t take what I just argued too seriously!!!!! Its not the complete, or the only story. And what would life be like without a little contradiction and inconsistency?

So,…..  I’d also like to make the point that we are only infrequently aiming at excellence in the things we do. We are not trying to be the best at everything we turn our hands to, but only on special occasions. We are not trying to be the best 30 minute couch potato in front of our favorite TV show. We are not trying to be the best sleeper the world has ever seen. We are not trying to be the best conversationalist every time we open our mouths. Aiming for the best, or even good, simply doesn’t matter in most of what we do. It doesn’t even enter our minds. It may not even make sense.

Sometimes it does make a difference, and then we focus on the standards we have adopted or created. But in general this is the exception, and we are focused on other priorities, like having fun, relaxing, just getting through something, working on autopilot, or distractedly daydreaming. And sometimes that’s just what we need.

In fact, for most of what we do it would be difficult to come up with standards of excellence. And for many things we could say that ‘good enough’ is more practical, more desirable, than aiming at excellence. The point is that for many things ‘good’ and ‘bad’ simply are beside the point. And just maybe ‘bad’ isn’t always such a bad thing, and ‘good’ isn’t always what its cracked up to be…..

Here’s something from one of my favorite blog posts I uncovered a few months ago:

“There was a time when you were five years old, and you woke up full of awesome.

You knew you were awesome.

And you loved yourself.”

I would say that this attitude is something precious. It gets crushed out of us by a lack of appreciation and tolerance for our differences, and from the pressures on us to conform. In my little utopian dream we would all live lives completely full of our own awesome. And I would say that the pressures on us to be ‘good’ or to ‘do well’ are sometimes so onerous that we can’t see our own lovely selves except in comparison to the external standards of ‘goodness’ and ‘wellness’. Its not really that being ‘bad’ is important as much as it is important not to be ‘good’. That is, it is important not to see ourselves only as a lesser reflection of our society’s standards, and that therefor it can be equally important to sometimes (if not always) be ‘bad’, to dwell outside the scrutiny of our culture’s expectations. If all we did was focus on living up to other people’s standards just where would that get us? Would we be happier? Would life be more like what we want it to be?

So perhaps also the importance of being bad is that it is permissible to set our own agendas, and to go off in our own unique directions. Isn’t that precisely what we are already trying to do as artists? In most cases, at least? Isn’t exploring our own imaginations often exactly a stance against what other people are prodding us toward? Doing things differently? Remaking the world as an act of nonconformity? Just ask a few artists what their parents wanted them to do with their lives, and you quickly get the picture that the iconoclasm of a creative life is a culturally ‘bad’ decision. Who would have guessed?

If we succeeded in trying to always be ‘good’ or to do ‘the right thing’ (as defined by someone else’s rules) it would only result in a world of stifling conformity and a sterile and torpid daily life. Difference would be smudged out, and nuance would be wiped clean. There would be no artists. That can’t be all that we want. And so it also seems important that we can each have our own personal standards that make a difference in our lives. What counts as ‘good’ for me can very well be unacceptable to someone else. And ‘bad’ for me can quite probably also be the pinnacle of  excellence for another person too. And isn’t this the way it really is? Isn’t this the way its supposed to be?

So let me end this by being typically bad. Let me finish this meditation by committing to no conclusion that doesn’t also have caveats. Let me affirm that there are more interesting questions than there are answers, but that the answers are also infinite, and infinitely interesting. If it sounds like a paradox, well, maybe life is full of them. And rather than trying to solve all things into tidy little parcels, perhaps also its the case that big questions can admit to inconsistent answers, and that reasonable people can reasonably disagree. Should that surprise us? I don’t think so. At least, not at this point in global consciousness….

So, be good when being good matters, be bad when bad is what is important, and blow it off when there are better things to be doing. Right? It might just turn out that on occasion ‘being bad’ is the most important thing you can do with your life.

How’s that for a bit of slanderous advice?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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6 Responses to The importance of being bad

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    You people and your moral relativism make me sick. Can’t you see that not only is ‘being good’ the only reason we’re here, but that there’s one AND ONLY ONE way to be good?!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Yeah, happy belated April Fools!

    Seriously, I really appreciate this post, Carter. I think you’re getting at something very important here, regarding the value of finding one’s own way and deliberate non-conformity. I completely agree with the idea that “it’s the struggle that defines us” — similar to the hidden benefits of committing to voluntary constraints.

    Specific to making pots, I think being bad is about all the little decisions that go against the grain in search of something personal, or interesting, or just a little strange.

    Re: conformity, as the great Merlin Mann (also a relativist, I’d assume) put it once:
    “Nobody’s ever going to be happy with how far along you are at being the person they wish you were.”

    • Yeah, I agree about the purposeful against the grain going. I could have gone on at length about it, but I was trying to keep this post short and sweet, saving my other tangents to a possible second follow-up instalment. The other important part of this is how failure works in the creative process, and that its often important to NOT get what we want. So much to be said there as well…..

      That Merlin Mann quote is hilariously true! No wonder you are such a fan of his! I need to tune into him a bit more….

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I would recommend his Back to Work podcast without reservation, but it’s so often chock full of geek-crowd in jokes and other obscurities that it’s probably hard to appreciate if that’s not you. I _think_ it’s me, and there are still long stretches where I have almost no idea what’s going on!

        But both Merlin and Dan are wicked smart and funny, and the banter of their camaraderie is worth a listen, even if it’s just as some background noise in the studio. It takes a serious dose of discipline for me to not consume multiple hour-plus episodes per day while my hands are busy on pots.

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