It feels so good to get it absolutely right the first time.
You know the feeling—or can at least imagine it. Hitting a home run the first time you swing a bat. Scoring a hole-in-one on your maiden voyage onto a golf course. Whipping up a complicated gourmet dish on your first-ever foray into the kitchen.
In our rosy daydreams, these accomplishments would make us the objects of acclaim and even adoration. We’d smile modestly as others raved about our incredible talent. Look at that! A total novice scored a stunning success, first time out of the box. Amazing!
Unfortunately… or perhaps fortunately… most of the time it’s just that. A daydream.
In my job as a writer, I have become very familiar with the important role that editing and rewriting plays in an author’s life. You may think you can do without it. You may wish you could do without it. But the edit is an integral part of the project, and here’s why.
You sit down and face a blank page, visions crowding your head and begging to find their proper places in that exciting blankness. You do your best to set them down exactly the way you imagined. You write, and ponder, and write some more. You fiddle with your word choices and sentence structure. You cut and paste and polish. There! The job is done. Your story or article or book is finished. And it’s perfect!
…except that it’s not. Even the most polished piece of writing can do with another pair of eyes to run through it. Obviously, if you wrote it, it sounds just right to you. It takes an outside party to view the piece with an objective eye, to catch any errors or suggest improvements. And if that’s true now, when you have years of experience under your belt, how true was it when you first started out?
This process becomes even more real when you’re working with a team. Imagine writing a Color War song along with a few of your teammates. Suppose you’re put in charge of putting something down on paper for the others to work with. However wonderful you may think your song is, someone else is going to think otherwise. Inevitably, there will be changes and alterations and deletions. By the time it’s over, your original version of the song will probably be unrecognizable.
There’s a simple reason for that. The reason is that it wasn’t really a finished product when you showed it to your teammates. It was only a first draft.
That’s what we need to remind ourselves as we go through life, trying our best to achieve success. Getting it right the first time is an anomaly. Mostly, what we achieve with our first efforts will be a hodge-podge of “Yay! I got that right” and “Boy, did I mess up…” Mistakes will riddle our every attempt to actualize our visions. And that’s inevitable, because to err is human.
Our initial effort in any and every area is going to be tantamount to a writer’s first draft. Something to be checked, rechecked, and constantly refined, before you can sit back and say: “Mission accomplished.”
What is it that drives us to yearn for a “right out of the box” success story? What allure does that daydream have, to render it so dazzling?
I think a big part of it is our desire to feel special.
When we’re small, our parents show us in every way they can that we’re the apple of their eye. They let us know that, to them, we are super-special. Then we go out into the big world and realize that the story is actually a little different than we thought. There are millions of people out there, each of them as special as you. But you still want to shine! What’s to be done?
The wrong answer is to try to prove your specialness by aiming for perfection right out of the box. To believe that your marriage must be just right from day one, and your parenting skills beyond reproach from the birth of your very first newborn. Even though you’ve never been either a spouse or a parent before.
In every other area of life, we understand that a certain amount of experience is necessary before you become adept at something. Somehow, when it comes to the overwhelmingly complex and gargantuan goals of sustaining a good marriage or raising healthy, wholesome children, we believe that we can dispense with the inevitable period of trial-and-error that goes into creating an expert. Perfection is ours to be had simply by wanting it, right?
I think not.
The simple truth is that, if we aim for perfection without those years and years of trial-and-error, we are doomed to disappointment. And the way we react to that disappointment can be twofold: either we blame ourselves, or we blame others.
For the self-blamers, falling short of our unrealistic goals of perfection makes us feel unworthy. We feel angry at ourselves over every blunder. We can become dejected or even hopeless. Having aimed for the impossible, we then berate ourselves for falling short. Does this make sense?
Another kind of person (if they can even be induced to believe that they messed up at all) will place the blame squarely on outside factors. Her failure to get it right must be her husband’s fault, or her mother’s for raising her inadequately, or her teacher’s, or her friend’s, or the mailman’s.
Unable to bear the thought of not being “special” enough to hit a home run on her first time at bat, she must find someone to bear the burden for her.
This, to say the least, is not very useful.
Our whole world was set up with a system of “try, fail, and try again.” That’s why Hashem was kind enough to provide us with the wonderful gift of teshuvah. He knew that most of our early efforts would be no more than a first draft of our life story. In His compassion, He gives us a lifetime of chances to get it right. And, if we keep trying, sooner or later we will.
The key to this eventual success, I believe, is humility. If we start off with the humble stance of the trainee or novice instead of expecting to step into the winner’s circle right off the bat, we’ll be able to view our mistakes in an honest and healthy way—and ultimately find ways to correct them.
Humility also helps us understand that we can’t do it alone. In life as in writing, you need an editor. Because there’s nothing more valuable in setting us straight than a caring and objective pair of outside eyes.
We may enjoy daydreaming about winning the admiration and respect of others by getting things, important things, right the first time. But I think we earn far more of those things when we roll up our sleeves and work consistently, day after day for a lifetime of days, to learn what we need to know.
We earn respect when we set modest goals and work hard to achieve them. When we put our egos aside, and our desire for outside acclaim, and realize that our initial efforts are a first draft.
When we put aside our dreams of being instant wonders and marvels and concentrate instead on being humble people. People who learn from our mistakes and dedicate ourselves to doing a little better the next time around.
That, my friends, is the definition of success!