This month has been all about passing on what I know. Mostly at work because I’m trying to step back. And it made me realise that passing on knowledge is a survival skill. On an evolutionary level it helps our offspring to survive, and on a personal level it helps us to survive.
How? We’re a troupe/tribal animal. We need other humans to help us survive on a physical level. So the more people who know the important information about hunting, gathering, making fire etc, the more of our troupe (including us) are likely to live.
But we also need to feel valued, respected, even admired – some more than others. Because that ensures us a place by the fire, food to eat, comfort and succor when we’re unwell. Being a font of wisdom helps us gain that respect and in turn gives us all the feels. So our mental health is (at least a bit) dependant on being accepted, admired, respected in our troupe and in our family.
But it’s a double-edged sword. When, exactly, are we Qualified to pass on our knowledge. When do we know enough to make sharing valid? We’ve all met people who know a little and come across like they know it all – we lose respect for them when their lack of skill shows through.
In the dojo we see this a lot. White belts, having newly learnt how to twist people into human origami, are eager to share with anyone who is dumb enough to put their hand out. Even brown belts tell everyone they are a brown belt and eagerly demonstrate the latest skills.
But in a good dojo, you’ll find the higher the blackbelt, the less likely they are to tell you what their belt colour is or demonstrate without good reason. They don’t need anyone’s validation.
I still remember when my Sensei handed over my shiny new blackbelt, embroidered with my name in kanji. He bowed and said with a wry smile, “Now you can begin to learn.” And I understood what he meant. I felt humbled by the sheer weight of what I DIDN’T know. The subtlety of the art I still didn’t understand. The skill of the higher belts. Their willingness to both help and let me learn for myself.
I also recall a blackbelt who, after doing something unbelievably arrogant, was stripped of his belt. He had the choice of leaving the dojo or starting all over again. I respect deeply that he started again. Re-did every grading until he got back to blackbelt. It took him two years. He became a much better person. Shut up more. Put aside his ego.
Both his character and his skill have now been proven beyond a doubt.
In writing it’s a lot harder to tell who you should respect; who is worth listening to. Anyone can put up a website and call themselves a ‘best-selling author’, or an ‘editor’. Anyone can spout advice on writing, story structure, character arcs. As a new author it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of advice – some conflicting, some useful.
And, as a new author, it’s very easy to get sucked into the desire to pass on what you’ve learned to someone who might be just a couple of steps behind you.
That’s whitebelt thinking. Please try hard not to. Remember there are better places they can learn from. Editors registered with a valid organisation and with qualifications and experience. Authors with mega-best-selling books (not just #1 on a niche Amazon category in a small country). Entire Writers Centres giving high-quality workshops. Writers Conferences all over the place.
You don’t need your ego validated. Focus your time on learning more, on improving your own writing. Try to refrain from teaching others until you’re at least a brown belt – until you have a couple of well-respected novels or short story collections out there in the world. Until you’ve been recognised by others in the industry as having the skills to engage and excite readers.
I’m only saying this because I made this mistake, myself. Tried to help others – very well-meaning, as we all are – earlier than I should have. We’ve all muddled along ok, but I could have done better. Could have given them better advice. Definitely could have shut up more.
Like martial arts, writing should not be about ego and having people look up to you. For me, personally, both are about doing something you’re passionate about; becoming a stronger, better person; living a richer, fuller life. Then, when you’ve mastered your art… that’s when you pass on what you know to those who want to hear it.
It might not be that way for you, of course. Your choice.
But for me, writing is not about gaining admiration. It’s about learning and growing and turning that into stories about life.
And I'm only beginning to learn.
I live in Australia - which tells you I have a sense of humour. We're a self-deprecating people, we Aussies. My aim is to, one day, vanish in a blinding flash of enlightenment. In the mean time, I'm doing my best to learn as many