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Beginner’s luck, beginner’s mind

Ditch your preconceptions and let magic happen

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BY SHELBY GONZALEZ
When it comes to writing — and, I suspect, other endeavors — beginner’s luck has less to do with luck than with three other factors: freshness, willingness to take chances and lack of limiting beliefs.
Allow me to illustrate with an embarrassing story.
It was my third year in college. My oeuvre comprised six published articles — mostly short, humorous essays — and an undergraduate research paper about “the meaning of the open road in 1950s America.”
Eager to make my literary mark and unencumbered by notions of paying dues and working one’s way up, I nosed around for a publication that might be interested in an article based on my paper. Eventually I found what sounded like a promising market: American Heritage.
Remember, I’d never penned a journalistic magazine feature. And American Heritage had a circulation of 400,000 (I noted with mild interest), roughly an order of magnitude larger than that of any publication I’d written for before.
Big deal. I composed a two-paragraph email summarizing my qualifications and proposing a 5,000-word feature. Clicked “Send.” Waited.
According to conventional wisdom, I should have been ignored at best and mercilessly mocked at worst. Not only did I have a meager amount of experience relative to the prestige of the publication, I was capital-G guilty of the cardinal freelancing sin: I had never even glanced at a copy of the magazine.
Two weeks later, after some back-and-forth with the editor, I got the assignment.
The embarrassing part comes later. Right now, pick your chin off the floor and let’s figure out how this happened.
Luck: Lady Luck’s fingerprints are all over this one. Mainly I was lucky the editor was willing to give a green writer a shot.
Freshness: I presented an unusual, ambitious and relevant story proposal. Also, my writing samples showcased a raw but distinctive voice.
Willingness to take chances: Whipping up that query, I wasn’t fretting about whether writing it was a waste of time because no way would a magazine like that publish a writer like me. I had an idea and I figured I’d give it a go.
Lack of limiting beliefs: I hopped from the peewees to the big leagues whistling “Dixie” all the way because I didn’t know that’s not how it usually happens. I hadn’t absorbed the narrative that says you need to start at the bottom and claw your way up.
You may be thinking, “If this little pipsqueak can nab a plum assignment like that, I oughta … ”
Fill in the blank with your own secret ambition — you know, that thing you want to achieve but have convinced yourself is impossible.
That’s what I hope you’re thinking. If you don’t regularly challenge your own assumptions, ambitions and self-perceptions, you may be hamstringing yourself.
That said, overconfidence in your experience and skill set can result in a painful face-plant. Exhibit A: The embarrassing conclusion to my American Heritage saga.
The same youthful hubris that had netted me the assignment led, Greek-tragedy-style, to my downfall. I didn’t bother reading the magazine to get an idea of its style before I wrote the article. No wonder the freewheeling, sociology-spattered treatise I turned in earned a swift “no thanks” from the editor.
I was crushed and appropriately humbled. Perhaps too humbled. Now I’m 27, with upwards of 150 articles under my belt. In acquiring experience, I’ve lost a bit of fire. I bet some of you could say the same.
Does this describe you?
You know which markets you belong in and which you don’t. You know what you’re good at and the types of stories you’re qualified to write. You’re comfortable. You hang back on querying your dream publications or launching your dream project because you suspect the effort would fail. Sometimes you wonder why your career hasn’t advanced further.
Knowing your abilities, interests and, yes, limitations is part of being an adult. But there’s an aspect of learned helplessness to it that can hold you back in a big way.
Think of the hackneyed but useful story about the baby circus elephant. The baby elephant is roped to a stake. It tries to get away but isn’t strong enough to break the rope or pull out the stake. So it wears a circle in the dirt around the stake — marking the limit of its abilities.
The elephant grows to adulthood, gaining many times the strength it had as a baby. But it stays within the dirt circle, mindful of the stake and the rope, because it “knows” it isn’t strong enough to break free.
You may be suffering baby-elephant syndrome if you often use words like “never,” “always,” “don’t” and “can’t” in relation to yourself or the outdoor writing industry. (“Books like that never sell.” “I can’t do that — I’m not the type.” “Those magazines only want big-name writers.”)
Such proclamations on “the way things are” not only reinforce and spread your possibly erroneous perceptions, they also shape the mindset you bring to your career.
One way to reclaim what Zen Buddhist practitioners call “beginner’s mind” is to find a mentor who will needle you out of your comfort zone. Another is to interrogate your assumptions. Do you know for a fact that Magazine X wouldn’t go for your story idea, or are you assuming they wouldn’t like it because you’re afraid of rejection?
This winter, as you hunker down to work on the longer-term projects the season is made for, try channeling a beginner’s boldness and outsider perspective. Cultivate a blank-slate mind. Release your expectations, attachments and preconceptions. You just might conjure some beginner’s luck. ♦
—OWAA member Shelby Gonzalez is an outdoor writer, adventure columnist (“Miss Guided”), and managing editor of Northern Wilds. A former rock climbing instructor, she is based in Duluth, Minn. Check out her work at www.shelbygonzalez.com or follow her at www.twitter.com/shelbygonzalez.
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