Learning is exciting and fun when you learn something you didn’t know before and you’re instantly excited about it. My experience in grad school so far has consisted mostly of this kind of learning. More often than not, it’s like, “Wow, a new author I love! Wow, a fascinating person I’ve just met! Wow, a school of thought I never conceived of before! Wow, world!”
But that’s not the only way to respond to learning new things. Responding negatively to new information is important, too. It doesn’t feel fun to not like a book you have to read for class, but really, this kind of learning is every bit as exciting when you take the long view. Finding out what you don’t like, e.g., the kind of work you don’t want to make, the books or authors or ideas you reject, this definitely help shape who you are as a person, a student, a maker, whatever.
And there’s another kind of lesson, I guess, that I’ve been thinking a lot about. It hasn’t been fun to learn it. It’s been uncomfortable and painful. But it’s been very important. Let’s see if I can explain.
If you’re a person who strives to to better, learn more, and do exciting stuff in collaboration other people, which is all of us, you need to be — nay, you want to be! — open to other people’s comments and contributions. Maybe you’re working on a project for work. Maybe you’re making a quilt. Maybe you’re writing a book. Maybe you’re a parent and you’re trying to raise your kids. Getting outside input is important. Listening to someone who has been there before is wise (especially if that person just got a raise doing the job you have, won a blue ribbon on her quilt, got a Pulitzer for her last novel and raised six kids.) The right advice can save you a lot of time. It could even save your life.
There is also a time to listen to yourself. There’s a time to get advice from this guy, that guy, her, her, and him, and then do nothing that they told you to do.
And I was going to say that “it’s so so so hard to know when to trust yourself and when to take advice!” but the thing is, I’ve been dealing with this recently and I think… Sometimes, I think it’s easy. Sometimes, you absolutely do know the right thing to do, and the hard part is admitting that and then going for it.
Here’s my example.
My advisors are amazing. They’re embarrassingly talented. They’re wildly accomplished. They’ve won awards, they’ve published in the fanciest places. They’re successful and brilliant and they are genuine fans of mine who want the best for me. I’m pretty sure that when I’m not in school, we’re all gonna hang out because we like each other.
But over the course of this semester, without meaning to do harm or lead me astray, both my advisors were steering me away from writing the essays I’ve been writing and toward writing a chronological memoir. And what do you suppose I started doing? Yes! Because they are so great and smart and fancy, I slowly started change everything I was doing to fit that vision. I thought, consciously and subconsciously: They know better that I do. They’re older. More successful.
The problem is that I don’t want to write a chronological memoir. I want to write something that doesn’t look like that. And when I lost sight of what I set out to do, when I was changing what I was learning to fit someone else’s vision, all the joy fell out of my project and I didn’t write on my book for a long time. I miss it.
Life and work, it’s all a negotiation. You must listen to others. You must learn. You would be well advised to be well advised. Folks who can’t be told nothin’ are frustrating and lame. (And believe me: Writers who think every word they write is gold and precious are not going to get very far.) We all need editors, we all need help and input from other people.
But you also know things. You do. And you matter as much as anybody else.