Dare to Suck: a manifesto to maximize learning

IMG_3161We just got back from Cazadero Family Performing Arts camp AKA heaven on earth for creative families.  All week long, under the majestic redwoods, people young and old are dancing, singing, juggling, clowning, making art and playing music together in multi-generational groups.

At Caz, I’m “AJ the bass player” holding down the bottom end in hip-hop, jazz, gospel and soul ensembles with my drummer buddies. This guy here — a MONSTER drummer, so fun to play with — is young enough to be my son, but nobody’s focused on that. At Caz, we’re all about that groove, ’bout that groove.

Dare to Suck

IMG_3159Caz isn’t about polished performances – it’s about getting out of your comfort zone and learning new skills. “Dare to suck” is a cherished camp motto – and the sense of support and acceptance surrounding that motto is palpable. Adults who’ve never sung in public will stammer their way through a song – and get a rousing round of heartfelt applause for overcoming their fear. Teachers who expertly run the music, art, theatre and yoga classes will show up in classes as total beginners – alongside students from 8 to 80 – ready to learn, and (struggling to be) unafraid to suck.

IMG_3165Naturally, the quality level of performances is variable – PRECISELY because of this underlying value system. Some people there have highly developed talents, and give us truly awesome performances. But the loudest applause – and the most attention – is reserved for those who are trying new things, and challenging themselves to stretch and develop. Those who dared to suck.

Lesson from Caz: to maximize learning, de-emphasize polish


The values and tradeoffs of Caz remind me of smart early product design – where you de-emphasize polish and “being right,” and focus instead on maximizing your learning. Caz creates the conditions under which rapid learning takes place – and re-inspires me to put those conditions into practice in my own work.

To see what a low-polish, high-learning performance looks like, check out this a video of our African Dance Class (shot by my 8-year-old on an iPhone). This was my first time drumming in that style. I learned how to hold down those parts during the week, and it was scary and THRILLING to make rapid progress, and play for everyone in our final performance.

Even better was seeing those dancers improve every day. Many of them started the week clueless and clumsy, and ended the week smiling, happy and grooving along with the funky beats. That’s what a high-learning environment can accomplish.