Amateurs and Experts: 7 Rules for Creators

None of us should allow the collective wisdom of experts to prove definitive. When you take a chance and miss, there's only one thing to do: work harder and return with more conviction. (OK. That's two things to do. Sue me.)
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At the Titanic exhibition in Philadelphia last week, a friend who's always good for a bon mot noted that Noah's Ark was built by an amateur carpenter while the Titanic was designed by the world's greatest engineers.

This week on Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham favored an expert's opinion over that of the family doctor and (spoiler alert), lost his daughter to a preventable condition in the process.

We have a natural skepticism about experts, and no one has greater skepticism than those in the creative class.

Critical misjudgments are so common that you can troll the Internet endlessly for lists. For example, the critics hated (or failed to see the brilliance of) the movies Psycho, The Third Man, and The Shining -- to name a few on this list. Cracked's fun list of classic novels once hated by critics includes Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Lord of the Rings.

But critics aren't the only experts who get it wrong. We've all heard the stories of agents, editors, and movie producers making spectacular misfires. Most famously, Irving Thalberg advised Louis B. Mayer to pass on Gone with the Wind, saying, "Forget it, Louis. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel."

Over the years, there have been many other judgments like that, and some of them have missed as badly.

In the '80s, after reading Scott Turow's memoir One L, a hot editor asked to see his next work. Upon receiving the manuscript for Presumed Innocent, she reputedly scribbled a note that said, "Thanks, but this isn't what I had in mind." The book, of course, went on to enormous commercial success.

But such missteps on someone's part aren't the exception; they're the rule. Nearly every bestselling novelist you can name was rejected by someone on the way up -- so many that it's easy to make sport at the gatekeepers' expense.

Rather than indulge that bit of schadenfreude, however, let's consider the other side of the ledger, where companies in full thrall to someone's creative product blew millions. The most famous of these are movies -- Ishtar, anyone? Gigli? -- because of the staggering sums involved, but there have been plenty of books, as well.

And every one of these monumentally bad decisions was made by experts (or teams of experts) -- people with track records that proved they knew what they were doing. They did know, didn't they? Right up until the very moment when they didn't.

It's tempting to mock their ineptitude, and goodness knows few talented creative types won't feel that we have karma on our side. Yet none of us who creates art -- or attempts to -- can say for sure that we would've chosen differently if given the chance. Gatekeepers, after all, are asked to predict the future of fickle markets. They're bound to be wrong from time to time, as are we all.

But the broader point is that no creator should take anyone else's judgment for gospel. None of us should allow the collective wisdom of these experts -- or even of the marketplace -- to prove definitive. When you take a chance and miss, there's only one thing to do: work harder and return with more conviction. (OK. That's two things to do. Sue me.)

Among the greatest predictive failures of all time, I believe, is F. Scott Fitzgerald's statement that "There are no second acts in American lives."

In fact, American lives have second and third and fourth acts. Ishtar didn't kill Dustin Hoffman's or Warren Beatty's careers, and Gigli didn't kill Ben Affleck's or Jennifer Lopez's. This month alone we witness Affleck's Argo garnering awards and Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut with Quartet. Beatty may be semi-retired, but Lopez still rakes it in.

John Grisham's novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by every major publishing house in New York before a small start-up brought it out to quiet failure. Two years later, his second novel, The Firm, achieved mega-bestseller status with Doubleday. (I was there at the time, but not directly involved.) And a few years after that, the re-released first novel became an enormous bestseller in its own right.

Stories like this are far from the exception. They don't prove that the experts don't know anything, but they do prove that the experts don't know everything.

Thank goodness for that, because engines of insistent creativity often spring from failure. In this -- the age of self-publishing -- the vast majority of self-published bestselling authors were rejected by experts. Rather than quitting, they doubled down and found their own way to the top. Some of them now have bookstore distribution deals with mainstream publishers who wouldn't give them the time of day on the sidewalk two or three years ago.

A friend of mine who was a client during my agent days once related some advice he'd received regarding Hollywood pitch meetings. An experienced producer told him there is only one appropriate response to rejection: "Next!"

From all this I infer a few rules for creative people to live by:

  1. Nobody has all the wisdom.
  2. Past success is no indication of future success.
  3. Past failure is no indication of future failure.
  4. Rules #2 and #3 apply equally to the "business" and to the marketplace.
  5. Gatekeepers only know for sure what happened in the past.
  6. Nobody owes you anything -- not even a chance.
  7. Therefore, when someone offers you a chance, take it.

Vincent van Gogh, of all people, said, "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together." If he'd quit after the first 20 pencil sketches, no one today would know his name.

It doesn't take an expert to tell you that.

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