“When you’re absolute beginners, it’s a panoramic view.
From her majesty, Mt. Zion, and the kingdom is for you.”
When I first started in advertising, I was intimidated by my lack of experience. I don’t have any fancy degrees framed on the wall. Who would take my advice? You could call it impostor syndrome if you’d like. There’s this running joke that Jim and I had initially: someone would burst into an office where we’re both sitting and shout “Fraud!” And before they could do anything about it, we’re already out the window, clinging to a well-timed ladder attached to a helicopter — our fantasy to escape like Bond villains. Little did we know (and occasionally still fail to realize) that this perspective would become one of our biggest strengths.
Ignorance is Confidence
When asked how he found the confidence to tackle and direct Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, another college dropout, had this to say:
“Ignorance … sheer ignorance. There is no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession that you are timid or careful.”
I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Welles on this point. If expertise is a shield, then ignorance surely must be a sword with two edges. It’s important here to distinguish between wielding ignorance to your advantage and just being flat-out fraudulent. There’s a line. Making a promise you know you can’t deliver on makes you a charlatan. Making a promise that you know can be done (even if you’re not quite sure how yet), that’s a different story.
In the case of Citizen Kane, Welles knew a story could be told. Stories have been told for thousands of years. He knew that recent technological advances existed to help tell that story. He just didn’t know what the process looked like or what he was getting himself into from a technical perspective. He wasn’t making his first movie and the first movie simultaneously. He was taking an art form he knew well (storytelling) to a newer-to-him medium (film), and in the process, he made one of the best movies of all time.
Telling the Truth to Yourself
When you move beyond the youthful Citizen Kane phase of your career and into the grizzled veteran phase, there’s more for you to consider. Rather than falling back on the confidence of ignorance, you have all this experience, and now you need to be able to rely on it to guide you. You have to conquer the “timid,” and the “careful” Orson Wells warns of, but how? There’s this Zen koan I’ve been learning about and reflecting on a lot lately, especially as it relates to creative work. It’s simply expressed as “Mu” (also pronounced Wu Gongan in particular Chinese dialects). In the simplest terms and translations, “Mu” means “No.” But it goes deeper than a short “no.”
This utterance also embodies a form of nothingness. Zen philosophers interpret this “Mu,” or no/nothingness, as a paradoxical riddle that expresses the sentiment: “Although it is, it isn’t. And although it isn’t, it is.” Another way to look at it, you can’t do it all; you can’t tackle it all.
- When you say “Mu” to yourself, you show yourself that you understand your own capabilities. Maybe it starts you on a quest to expand those capabilities. Perhaps you realize you dodged a bullet.
- When you say “Mu” for your team, they will appreciate that you’re protecting their energy as well. There’s nothing worse than your leaders getting you into something you can’t and shouldn’t do.
- When you say “Mu” to a client, it can ultimately help your relationship. On the client/prospect side, we’ve never had a situation where our honest assessment of what we could and should do for a client didn’t (at the very least) earn respect and establish trust. At best, it allows you to steer a client toward what you feel should be done, toward what’s ultimately in everyone’s best interest.
Experience has taught me that sometimes the opportunity lies in saying “Mu” to something that seems outside of your locus of control. I think saying “Mu” when needed is more about assessing and being honest with yourself than anything else. This sort of honesty has a ripple effect and a positive one at that.
Matt Maguy is co-founder at JXM, an advertising agency located in Massachusetts.