I’ve just returned from a glorious week up Scotland, stalking Rory Miller and getting fed into floors by aikidokas. It’s been really interesting dipping my toes into the instructor side of things. I found it quite painful to see some students do things that created or exacerbated problems that they then couldn’t solve because they were still doing those things… and all they needed to do was to stop doing those things… but they couldn’t get off that hamster wheel.

It got me thinking: how can people be made to suck at certain things? We’re not a naturally sucky species. We took over the whole damn planet armed with opposable thumbs, sticks, and rocks against species who considered us food items. We are incredibly adaptable, resourceful, and anti-fragile. Yet I routinely see clever, capable, motivated people with horrible learning knots in their heads they can’t seem to unravel or cut through. So I started to think of ways you could put those knots into place by thinking of ways could teach someone to be bad at a game:

  • Do not teach them the rules of the game, either by modelling or explicitly.
  • Do not give them the required tools/skills to play the game.
  • As they are playing, run a commentary highlighting everything they are doing wrong and ignoring anything they are doing well, or at least better.
  • Compare all successes with unlikely/inappropriate/unachievable standards to highlight their insignificance.
  • Make the cost of mistakes so high that it not only puts them off playing spontaneously or joyously, but makes them constantly adrenalised during play.
  • Establish and impose standards of achievement that do not take into account point of origin or allow for individual learning speeds.
  • Test them against standards of achievements at set times, regardless of whether they are ready to pass.
  • Punish losses.
  • Punish good results achieved by “wrong” means.
  • Punish good results in general.
  • Punish anyone who does better than you.
  • Just punish whenever you get the urge.
  • Change the game parameters randomly.
  • Change the game parameters deliberately to negatively affect otherwise good results.
  • Force them to play until they are so exhausted they mess up.
  • Take over for them at the slightest alleged sign of trouble.
  • Make them sit out games if you deem they are not “up to it”.
  • Make the game unwinnable by them.
  • Make the game unwinnable by anyone, but tell them it’s just them.

This is just a first pass. I’m sure there’s plenty of other tactics I’m missing. I stopped listing them when I started feeling faintly nauseous about how many of them are in-built in our educational systems… And maybe I’m overthinking the entire issue, anyway. Because if you want to make someone suck, all you need to do is catch them young enough, and just tell them that they suck. Tell them that they are clumsy, stupid, weak, awkward. Take their qualities and turn them into faults (“too nice”, “too creative”). Take their normal human tendencies and turn them into personal fallacies (“gets angry when provoked”).

Tell them with care and concern in your voice, rather than as an insult or an accusation, because that will struck deeper. Refer all their issues to the personal failure of your choosing – because, of course, other people never have any problems, oh no. A few months or years of being told that they suck and being shown how they suck, and there’s a good chance that it will become part of their internal narrative.

Once you’ve achieved that, you won’t have to do anything anymore. They will do it to themselves. You will have people who can’t use their strength because they “know” they’re weak. People who have the most wonderful friends groups but “know” they are socially inept and doomed to die alone. People who are entirely and reliably self-supporting but “know” they are pathetically incompetent. People who’re so concerned people will notice their struggles that they’re oblivious as to how well they’re doing, and as to how everyone else is struggling too. People who, however well they do at anything, will rewrite the narrative to turn their successes into failures (“it was just luck”, “they let me win”) or insignificancies (“writing non-fiction isn’t really writing”…).


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