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B&N Week 127: Mistakes

| May 28, 2013

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We’ve got another lovely Tuesday here! The temps keep climbing, and while most of the country is experiencing spring, I’ve got summer scorching right outside my door.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with an artist friend of mine [Hi, DJ!], and he made a remark about the two of us. He said that we had “made the right mistakes,” and that had attributed to our growth. That’s what I want to talk about this week. Not making “right” mistakes, but making mistakes, period, and how to turn them into things that work in your favor.

I’ve told the non-flattering story of myself before: how my ego was rampant, and few places were good enough for my presence. “Out of control” should have been stamped on my forehead.

If you look, you can find horror stories enough to fill a book, and that’s for all creative stripes: editors, writers, pencilers, inkers, colorists, and letterers. You don’t even have to look hard. All you have to do is either ask around, or hang around long enough to get some of your own horror stories.

Here’s the thing: people are afraid to make mistakes. What’s worse is this: the higher up you are in any organization, the more afraid you become of making them. Part of that is because of the fear of punishment, especially when you rise through the ranks. Things cost money, and when you start to rise, you become responsible for more of it. Mistakes cost the organization money, and when the mistake is too costly, you’re punished by no longer having a job.

Mistakes are a source of fear, but greater than that, more important than that, they are a great learning tool. The best learning tool there is, if you want to be honest about it. Let me tell you why.

A mistake can be another word for “failure.” What do you learn from success? Especially first time success? Not much, if anything at all. First time success teaches you that things are easy, so that when you finally come up against adversity, you aren’t ready for it. As a kid, my father always used to tell me, “Adversity builds character.” I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about at the time, but I certainly understand it now.

Mistakes, in the failure sense of the word, are very black and white. Like Yoda, either do or do not. [And since only the Sith deal in absolutes…Yoda is a Sith.] Did you accomplish the mission? (Well, I made a mistake. See, Pen-Man is missing a knee, and–) The correct answer is “no.” The mistake is an excuse you’re making for your failure to complete the mission. [And we know that excuses are bad things.]

The textbook definition of mistake is an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong. While it can still be a failure, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. We make these types of mistakes all the time. We don’t know they are mistakes at the time, leading to situations that can be less than optimal, but once we’re out of the situation, we hopefully have been able to learn from it, and thus, grow.

Way back when in the mists of time, when I was just learning how to be an editor, I fell in with a group of people who seemed to have things going well for them. They were looking for all kinds of editorial support, and one of the editorial positions was as assistant editor in chief. While I was in the Marines, one of my bosses told me that if you’re going to go, go big. I went for and got the assistant EIC position.

The place seemed to be okay. Lots of titles, lots of hustle and bustle, lots of things to do. I had to hit the ground running, and there were meetings, group meetings, and I had to know what was important enough to pass along to the EIC and what I had to defuse myself, know which titles where in which group, which storylines were where, character concepts, designs, and a hell of a lot of stuff. Different timelines, different imprints, and while the editors had to report to the group editors, the group editors had to report to me, and I had to report to the EIC. There were even monthly and quarterly progress reports that had to be done on the editors.

If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it was. If it sounds like controlled chaos, that’s because it was, although after a while there was more chaos than control. The character designs were overly complex on a lot of characters, pages were coming in extremely slowly, and everyone was trying to gainsay everyone else. Power trips of the insignificant kind.

Eventually, I left. It took a few months. During that time, not one title was complete. Not a single one. And these people had been trying to put together this thing for years. Years, before I had ever gotten there.

After I left? Things got stagnant. There was a mass exodus of people who left because it was chaotic and nothing was getting done. I left with the others. And watched as a new crop washed in and tried to reinvent the wheel only to ultimately go nowhere. The company finally kinda petered out, after years of work, without having put out a single comic. Without a single comic even coming close to being put out. And we’re talking about a good dozen titles that were being planned.

What did I learn from that?

I learned that I was quickly capable of learning a lot of information in a little bit of time. I learned that you need focus in order to produce comics. I learned that, for making comics, you need to start small before trying to expand. I learned that it is very difficult to get a large number of people excited enough to work on your concept that they’ll work for free. I learned that without good leadership, people will not follow you. I learned that people want good leadership, and they want to be kept in the loop.

I also learned that creators are a touchy lot. They don’t like to be directly called on their bullshit, they want you to come at it from an angle. I learned that I don’t like to hold hands and coddle creators.

I learned that joining that group was a mistake, but it was a good one, for without it, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I had about creating comics and handling creators in such a short time. It would have taken me years to gain the experience I had gotten in a few short months.

It was a “right mistake,” and I didn’t think I was making one at the time.

Here’s another thing about mistakes that you probably know but have never consciously voiced: no one else can tell you when you’ve made a mistake. Only you can. Others may think they know, and they may even be right, but only you will know for certain. And once you’ve figured out that you’ve made a mistake, only you will know how to get out of it.

But here’s the thing about mistakes that you already know: you’re doomed to repeat them if you don’t learn from them. So, here’s what I suggest you do.

Take some time to get back to an even keel. Look at the mistake unobjectively. Trace the steps that led to the decision forward and back, seeing if there were any signs that would have led to a different decision. After the tracery, make note of the lessons you learned. You had to have learned something in order to understand that a mistake was made. Start from there, and then follow the thoughts wherever they may lead. What did you learn to do? What did you not learn? Did you learn how not to do something? Trace them, write them down, stick ‘em in a folder. Go back and pull it out every so often. Add to it with new mistakes and lessons learned. Check that against your own growth.

It is commonly said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. I’ll say that if you don’t study your mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them.

Making mistakes is not inherently bad, as long as you learn from them. Don’t put the blame on someone else [make an excuse], don’t say you would have been right if this or that had happened… None of that is important. Deal with what has happened, learn from it, write the lessons down, and move on.

You’ll see a lot of growth and change within yourself. If you do it for past mistakes, you can probably see what shapes your current opinions and attitudes. No matter what, you’ll be learning.

And that’s this week’s homework: write down your mistakes, trace the decisions that led to them, and write down the lessons learned from them. See how you’ll do things differently in the future. See how your mistakes have shaped you into the person you are now. Endeavor to try not to make the same ones in the future. Unlike Yoda [bright lord of the Sith?], “try” is the only thing you can do here.

See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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