April 14, 2016

The Error in Justifying your Work

Harvey began telling me what I should be doing with my life. I had known the guy less than five minutes and now he lectured me about how my mistaken approach. My attendance at this mixer was to support a friend, but seemed like another place where I needed to justify myself.

Harvey (not his real name) boasted about his own success. He told me about his nonprofit, how helpful he was to others, and how well his life was going. I listened as he shared his philosophy on life in great detail before he asked about me.

“I’m a writer and journalist. I’m at an alternative school called Experience Institute looking at different ways to tell stories.”

This was my two-sentence answer refined over 1,000 tellings. I iterated away from terms like "creative storyteller" and "alternative storytelling" to simply "writer and journalist." Next, I explained to Harvey about designing my own education around apprenticeships.

“So what have your apprenticeships been? How are you going to do this in the real world?”

My apprenticeships, of course, have been a bit messy. For those just tuning in, I began at a startup in New York City that fell through. Then, I wrote a novel, but I am now ignoring the book because I don’t like the story. I’m currently working for Ei, helping them with the Leap Kit (another term I have to define for Harvey).

Once we get through this introduction, conversations of this type follow a general pattern. Harvey asked how I could do this in real life. Without letting me answer, he told me that I should think about marketing or copywriting. He was oblivious to the idea that I might have given my year some thought.

Harvey explained how I’m mistaken on the term storytelling and he had figured out my life for me. He repeated the mantra I’ve heard so often about how “everything is storytelling.” I bit my lip and nodded along politely.

Finally, I extricated myself from the conversation. I just told the next person who asked that I’m a journalist and work freelance—a fallback with short follow-up answers. I find myself in the same conversations over and over at these events:

What do you? What are you trying to do? How have I done something similar?

I worry about overexposure to other people’s feedback and opinions. Learning and making connections through discussion is important. However, the Harvey-type interactions are not about me, but about validating someone else. People eager to share ideas without considering me only adds to my burden of proof, rather than eases it.

This influences how I approach conversations. I try first to understand where the person is coming from and create a sense of empathy early. It turns out that not everyone needs my help. Giving unsolicited advice is a lot less valuable than trying to learn what the other person knows.

If I have helpful suggestions I add those later without challenging the person's philosophy. Who am I to say what works in an always-evolving world?

I want to get to a place where my work speaks for itself. I’m not there yet, but I know I can't get there by chasing the approval and ideas of everyone. I’ll work on my craft, continue my personal projects and learn where I can. My justification can come later.

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