Over the decade or so since I officially became an editor, I’ve sat on a number of conference panels, with a number of silly-formal conference-panel names. I’ve given speeches with post-speech Q&As, been a guest speaker in classrooms, and been interviewed about my career for publications, both biggish and small.
The questions I am asked in these situations range in quality and scope —sometimes people want to know old magazine yarns, sometimes they want to talk about women on the Internet, sometimes about something real sexy, like how brands can reach an audience across platforms. But most of the questions I get involve advice — What’s your advice for young editors? What would you tell new college grads? and then, if the moderator/interviewer/question-asker is trying to mix things up, What career advice would you have given yourself?
This question is an old trope, a popular magazine-essay packaging device, a way to make an audience simultaneously sentimental about wisdom and nostalgic for youth. We see variations of this self-advice construct in web articles, bundled up in “Letters to Myself” books, in videos where semi-famous people fade into one another as they espouse inspiring aphorisms about life. It’s intimate. It’s navel-gazing. It’s nurturing. It somehow flatters us all.
Whenever I am asked this question in public, I don’t really know what to say. (So I say something canned, like “A little sugar goes a long way!” Or something I think will get a laugh, like “Wear a bra!” Hardy har.) The real advice I wish I could give my younger self is more intense and harsh than what I’d give to others, what I’d give to you. It’s not a sound bite, it’s not onstage cool. What would have been most useful to me in the early stages of my career, during the period between first-job terror and middle-management malaise — in addition to all the more general advice you’ve read so far in this book — is embarrassing and intimate. It’s tough love. It’s not always nice. Here’s what I would have told myself. Maybe it will help you too.
You’ll suck at everything the first time you do it
You will probably suck the second and third time too. Don’t get defensive about this; don’t decide that you should never do the thing again because you’re as worthless as a chin pimple. Don’t compare yourself to other people who have been doing the thing longer, who have practiced and are better. Who were maybe born better—who cares. Don’t pretend the reasonable person critiquing your work is wrong and awful and your sub-standard work is up to snuff because believing this soothes your ego. That thing you did sucks, but it doesn’t matter: with effort, you can become great at almost anything except maybe (at this point) professional sports. Accept this as reality, stop getting so mad, stop being so mean to yourself, and start working to make it good.