It was one of my first shifts on the daily newspaper I’d just joined, and I was sent out to cover a murder. Someone had been found on their suburban doorstep, throat slashed. I was nervous and excited as I interviewed neighbors and spoke with the detectives.
With deadline fast approaching, I found a nearby public phone booth—yes, this was back in the Stone Age—and called in to the paper’s copy-takers. They occupied a phone bank where they banged out stories as they were dictated to them by reporters out in the field, usually squinting at the keys on their typewriters through the smoke drifting from the cigarettes clenched between their lips. They were not journalists themselves, but they’d heard it all through the years.
I marshaled my thoughts, and delivered what I thought was a great lede, a paragraph bristling with drama. There was silence on the other end of the line, then a sniff. An unspoken, “That it?” It was a crushing moment of disdain for a young journalist, dissed by a veteran who was not impressed. I hurriedly revised, and tried again.
Countless articles further on, I’m still a little nervous when offering something I have written. But it’s always a healthy reminder that someone else may see things differently, more clearly even.
That’s not a lesson that is just applicable to my professional life. A recurring morning ritual in our home has me looking in the bathroom mirror, scrunching at my hair for a couple of minutes with my fingers until I get it just right, and then turning to my wife for approval. She will then smile, reach over, and do some rearranging.
This used to bug me, until I realized that when I look in the mirror, I’m not actually seeing myself as I really am, of course. Close, but not completely true. The parting on the left has, in the words of The Who, become the parting on the right (and we are in danger of getting fooled again…). In fact, for all that I think I’m making an honest appraisal, when I look in the mirror, I see myself differently to everyone else in the world.
Perhaps when it comes to both introspection and self-expression, we can only go so far, see, and say so much clearly. Then we need another pair of eyes or ears to give us an independent assessment of how well we have done, how “true” our perception or presentation seems from a different vantage point—if we are brave enough. It’s not always comfortable, of course, but it can keep you from weak work. Or a bad hair day.