On making mistakes and pretending

When searching for a literary quote for the new year’s card I recently sent out (I ended up using this one by T.S. Eliot), I came across a 2011 blog post by Neil Gaiman in which he wrote

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.

As an editor, I make my living correcting “mistakes,” of course, but this is about something else entirely. It’s about taking certain risks and accepting the fact that they may lead to mistakes. Some mistakes you may want to forget. Other mistakes you will inevitably learn from. And some mistakes will turn out not to be mistakes at all, but pivot points that take your work, your career, or your life in an unplanned yet completely marvellous direction.

In his “Make Good Art” speech to the University of the Arts class of 2012, Gaiman once again advocated making mistakes. The speech, which is about the things he wishes he’d known when starting out as a writer, was made into a visually delicious book designed by Chip Kidd. If you need artistic inspiration (or inspiration of any kind, frankly), this book will lift you out of your slumber and motivate you to get out there and try something.

I connected with every piece of advice Gaiman dispenses in the speech, but I love this gem most of all:

Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult…and I suggested that she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could.

This reminds me of when I was starting out as a freelance editor in 2003-4. I was kayaking with a friend and a guide one day, and the guide asked me what I did for a living. “I’m an editor,” I replied, for the first time ever. And I gulped.

My response felt dishonest; while I did have a few paid editing jobs under my belt, I still made most of my living as a business consultant and I hadn’t yet figured out how to make the transition from my old career to my new, desired one. Saying I was an editor felt like I was playing a game of pretend.

It was an important moment, as it turns out. That first act of pretending gave me the nudge I needed to make it more real. Within the next 18 months, I said goodbye to the consulting world and became a full-time freelance book editor.

A decade has since passed, and I have never looked back. But I can still benefit from inspirational words like Gaiman’s to keep pressing forward to the next project, the next challenge, and, if I’m doing things right, some “glorious, amazing mistakes.”




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