Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Don’t Learn From Others In Your Field: The Hermit and The Apprentice

This is going to sound like very strange advice, and goes against lots of advice that is scattered across the internet, but I’m going to say it anyway: you should not try to learn from others in your field. In fact, you should go out of your way to avoid them altogether.

Ok, I will clarify my extraordinary statement: you should not learn from others in your field in certain circumstances. What are they? Keep reading below.

The Hermit

We have all experienced this scenario – you read about someone who has written books in the same genre you are currently writing your first manuscript in, and she has already topped the bestseller charts, along with getting recommendations from everyone you admire, with exhortations of how brilliant and original her work is. You shut down the laptop and lie down on your bed – thinking how futile it all is – what is the point of toiling away at this rubbish manuscript when it will never get published, never be brilliant, never be endorsed by Stephen King? You put away your manuscript, not turning to look at it for months, utterly disheartened.

This is why you must adopt the mind-set of the Hermit, at any time when the existence of your work is threatened. Harsh judgment, even from ourselves, can kill our creative spirit and prevent us from reaching our own potential, whatever that may be.

So I suggest a self-imposed break from reading about those in your field while you are working on creating the scaffolding of your work – lest you give up or feel tempted to take the safe, easy path, thus guaranteeing a rotten framework. If you are writing a mystery novel, by all means read non-fiction or romance novels, but stay away from writer’s interviews or writer blogs. You don’t want to stumble on a guest post by a bestselling writer on how she wrote her novel in 3 weeks while looking after her newborn baby. It will just make you miserable.

Invest your limited energy and resources into fleshing out your novel or play or app, and don’t let your peers’ multi-million dollar deals sway you. Become a hermit, stay away from any news or articles that could destroy your burning desire to work at your art.

The Apprentice

I can hear your protests – surely hiding like an ostrich will not help our careers, don’t we have to network, shouldn’t I be learning tips from those successful in my field? Yes, its true we have a lot to learn from our peers and betters. And there is a stage for that – when not only will you learn from others, but you have full permission to spend hours on Fast Company / Writer’s Digest / Lifehacker researching the apps and work habits of the leading lights in your field.

That stage is the revision stage. Whether you just wrote a screenplay or created an app, once you have put the basic parts down, you need to revise. And this is when you will benefit most from external input. Maybe you can get tips to improve your dialogue. Or ideas on making your product more user-friendly. With something concrete in hand, when you read about your peers / betters succeeding, there is less envy and more “how-can-I-do-that-too” going on. You feel inspired to go back to your creation, maybe having gained a fresh perspective – which is really crucial at this stage. However, doing this when you have yet to complete your book or app, you are much more likely to give up in frustration seeing all the ways your precious idea-baby is lacking.

So to recap – if you are still in the throes of putting together your first draft, turn off Internet Explorer, open up your project and get going. Don’t look left or right – till you have something that can be improved, that can be tweaked. Don’t think about the prizes and book sales others may be getting, or how badly or well your work will be perceived.

Once you have something to work with, become a sponge and soak up all the knowledge you can. Apprentice yourself to anyone you admire – learning from their work habits or their outputs, and go back to your own creation and see how you can make it better.

I’m off to be a hermit myself (though not exactly like the picture below).

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