“I’m really torn. I’ve shown my work to friends who say it’s good, but for some reason I can’t sell it. I’d like to figure out why. Though it may sound pretentious, sometimes I think it’s because the world’s just not ready for it. Other times I think it could be better. So I’ve tried hiring people to help me improve it, but—well, basically their responses rubbed me the wrong way, and I thought, yeah it’s easy for them to find fault with other people’s work. Anybody can be a critic and since I’m the visionary, I should just keep honing it myself. But then again, maybe that’s just my ego stuck in its own little fantasy. Maybe I’m biased. Well, of course I am, but I mean maybe my bias needs to be tempered by other biases. But then whose? Everybody has a bias, and I don’t want to compromise my standard in order to satisfy some editor’s ego. Really I probably do need help, but I don’t seem to be able to commit to any. I keep hoping to find someone who knows just how to perfect my work, someone who would just tell me what to do. I haven’t found anyone yet, so I go around in circles seeking advice, resisting it, seeking more advice. They say people who are self-employed have an idiot for a boss. I think there’s something about my personality, my upbringing that makes me unusually ambivalent about guidance. Sometimes I wish I had a real boss I couldn’t question or challenge. Any boss is better than groping in the dark like this. I think maybe the answer is to go back to school. Some teachers are really jerks but at least in school you know what you’re supposed to do. Even if I went back to school though, I’d have to decide which one. So in a way there’s no escaping it. It’s like hiring your own boss, which is weird. How do you hire a boss? And if you’re doing the hiring, how do you then subordinate yourself to the boss you hire?”

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

This dilemma is more universal than one might suppose. It’s not just the budding artiste who deals with it. It can arise any time we have a say in hiring coaches, guides, editors, consultants, therapists, or teachers. It doesn’t just arise in the conscious act of hiring either, but any time we find ourselves becoming deferential to someone, attentive to their opinion, seeking their counsel, which is something that people do quite readily.

We’re born deferential to our parents. This innate deference is key to our survival. It comes so easily to us that later in life, we naturally find leaders to follow, role models to imitate, masters to study with, bosses to guide us, and editors to correct us—local representatives of some high standard we aspire to. We sidle up as close as possible so some of their skill rubs off on us. The Hindus call it Bhakti, or devotional yoga, loosely translated as using one’s natural tendency for deference as a vehicle for self-improvement.

When the standard one aspires to is well-established, there isn’t much problem picking a guide. It’s relatively easy to choose a mentor in auto-mechanics, carpentry, or medicine, even if the disciplines are difficult. The challenge of picking the right mentor is greater with creative and speculative projects—writing a book, launching a business, or crafting the right life for yourself.

Three standards of success come into play when one deals with this dilemma. The standard you aspire to, your personal standards, and your guide’s standards. If you want to write a best-seller, the high standard you aspire to meet had better be the reader’s standard or else it won’t sell well. So as you write, you try to keep the reader in mind. But can you? After all your mind is already occupied by you, sometimes the reader gets crowded out. So maybe you should find a mind unoccupied by you, someone who can edit on behalf of the reader. But the editor too has an occupied mind and may insist on making changes that don’t suit either you or the reader.

Notice how this dilemma is paralleled in the quite different yet still speculative work of money management. You’re a millionaire but you want to be a multi-millionaire. You’re high standard is ‘buy low; sell high.’ You have a gut sense of when to buy and sell, but you’ve seen yourself get too emotional and impulsive. You know your gut can be wrong. So you seek an independent opinion. You hire a shrewed but cool-headed money manager who says he’ll turn your million into millions. But then the money manager has distorting self-interests too—commissions and incentives that sometimes override both your impulses and the standards of the market.

The same dilemma shows up in the deepest commitments of philosophy and religion. It was indeed a central theme for the post-modern French philosopher Derrida who passed away last month. We wonder how to live our lives. We imagine a high standard we should aspire to, virtue, holiness, a higher purpose, the good life, eudomia, enlightenment, the zone, the groove—what in general goes by the name logos in philosophy. Derrida argued that all world-views at core present two states and a vector between them moving from the lower standard to the higher state.

As St. Augustine pointed out we want to meet this lofty standard, but only sort of. We have our own appetites as well which are at odds with our attempts to reach logos. So we seek counsel, a life-path editor who will keep us oriented toward the logos. Our guides—philosophers and priests; gurus and divine incarnations play ‘getting warmer/getting colder’ with us directing us toward the logos. At least we hope they do, but there have been more than a few cases of spiritual guides leading the flock astray. So maybe it’s better to go it alone. If you’re going to be led to temptation anyway, isn’t it better to be led by your temptations and not the temptations of some self-serving guru?

What should you do about this dilemma? First, familiarize yourself with its contours. It comes up so often it’s worth getting to know. Second, disabuse yourself of pat solutions to the dilemma. There is no simple way out of the dilemma, like always surrender to outside guidance or always follow your own intuitions. While that may seem obvious it’s amazing how often we’re persuaded by rhetoric that boils down to nothing more than these pat solutions. Editors or gurus who tell you, ‘you just can’t take criticism,’ may or may not be right, but their argument doesn’t mean their criticism is necessarily worth taking. There is no pat answer like ‘always take all criticism,’ Likewise, people who say, ‘Why should I care what other people think?’ imply the opposite pat answer, as though following one’s gut is always the best. Third, notice how strong the appetite is to solve it, which is probably the reason we’re so drawn to the pat solutions. The appetite represents our desire to get things right in a wiggly world where it’s not obvious what will prove right in the end. Fourth, if you find yourself dealing with this dilemma, get over the idea that you’ve got some exotic psychological tendency to defer to, or defy authority, based for example on how you were brought up. No doubt your upbringing influences how you deal with the dilemma but the dilemma is as ubiquitous as shrubbery. It comes with the territory of being alive.

The real solution to the dilemma is akin to ‘buy low; sell high,’ surrender yourself to guides who can represent your high standards to you well. Ignore and resist the guides who will steer you wrong.