Updated: Jul 6
I’m gonna tell it straight even if I have to sleep on the couch tonight: My son was not, at first, a cute baby.
For six weeks he was just not cute in any sense of the word, and for six further weeks he was only cute when he was smiling. He had frown lines, baby acne, male pattern baldness and a belly button that seemed to waver on whether to become an outie.
In spite of this, he grew ridiculously cute as he put on more weight, grew a little widow’s peak and started expressing more diverse emotions than “pissed.”
Beware thinking the first thing you get published is the Most Beautiful Baby that has ever been born or ever will be. Your baby is ugly. If you’re any good as a writer, or if you’re ever going to be any good, somewhere along the way you’ll probably look back and think, “Man, that was an ugly baby.”
You should be proud of your early work if it’s crafted with integrity. Still, you’re not going to think that it was actually the best you have to offer the world. At best, you’ll feel that you spent an inordinate amount of time writing and editing it.
This is true across industries, but especially in creative fields. Pixar Co-founder Ed Catmull famously said,
“Every one of our films, when we start off, they suck. … Our job is to take it from something that sucks to something that doesn’t suck. That’s the hard part.”
Super-talented and successful people have a penchant for laughing about their early blunders. Show me someone who acts like he clawed his way up the ladder with innate ability and moxie; I’ll show you a bore who’s marginally-talented at best and has a troubled personal life.
I suspect it’s a common blunder for novice writers to think their first article (or book, or white paper) is the best thing since sliced bread. After all, you don’t just pick some random thing to write about that you first heard of yesterday; you start by hand-picking a topic that you’re knowledgeable and passionate about. It’s daunting if the resulting article is rejected, edited extensively, challenged on grounds of accuracy or otherwise criticized.
Best Article Ever
My “Best Article Ever” was my first, of course. That’s probably the same with many writers and even more would-be writers.
It was well-researched, honest and useful.
It was long-winded and slightly pedantic.
One major publisher rejected it on the grounds that his magazine had already covered the topic. At least two others rejected it or failed to respond to my query. One magazine offered to publish it for what I deemed too small a payment. So I took a break from any attempt at professional writing that lasted around three years.
Having made myself sound both arrogant and thin-skinned, let me clarify that the hiatus was punctuated by three semesters in graduate school and the birth of two children. Also, accepting lowball offers devalues the writing profession. We don’t get paid enough as it is and shouldn’t engage in collective sabotage.
At any rate, my belief that my first baby was better than it actually was, then seeing it
flounder, was one of the factors that sidelined my ambitions for some time.
Three years later, I pulled the article out again and said,
“This is an ugly-ass baby!”
I re-wrote it to be more relatable, less pedantic and generally less-sucky. It got published.
When you start from a perceived pinnacle, whichever way you turn you’re walking downhill. So face it: Even if you’re adequate at the outset, you’ll one day look back on aspects of your early work and think, “Man, I kinda sucked at that.”
If your best, first effort doesn’t succeed by whatever measure of “success” you have in mind—be it a large fee, a certain number of shares on social media, an offer for a staff position at a magazine or newspaper, whatever—it can be stifling.
There’s always plenty of room to grow, so take satisfaction in your work, but don’t spend too much time patting yourself on the back.
I still look back fondly on pictures of my son as a newborn, but I have the perspective to realize that he wasn’t the cutest baby right out of the gates. I also realize the same of my early articles. If I’d realized that at the time, I would have gotten to where I am much faster. There’s always plenty of room to grow, so take satisfaction in your work, but don’t spend too much time patting yourself on the back. (Daniel Pink has much to say about affirmative- vs. inquisitive self-talk and I endorse his viewpoint.) What matters is how driven you are to improve, not where you begin.
In one or two years I may look back on some of the work I’m doing now and think that, at least comparatively speaking, it sucks. I’m okay with that. Just don’t tell the people who pay me.
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