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Hindsight is a brutal taskmaster for a historian. You can’t use it as an analytic tool, even though it is impossible to ignore. Everyone in the past made decisions without knowing their complete consequences. There was no way to tell if their actions would lead to success, failure, or any variety of unexpected outcomes until the results were in. If you begin with hindsight you can misjudge and celebrate and vilify people for all the wrong reasons.

Which is why you loath “success” bias in writers. Once they go from toiling into obscurity to any degree of fiscal success, they start to offer advice on how to win big at being a writer. Their story becomes a map we should follow. A strange view of “destiny” that becomes a story for everyone to emulate (a case of doublethink to do Orwell proud).

But before they were a success, that map was a maze. There was no certainty that this project would take off, or that they had the chops to write well, or that the agent wouldn’t screw them over, or that a convention would introduce them to a great or awful editor, or that the people who did that fun podcast would later go into publishing, or that marrying into the upper middle class would serve them well, etc., etc., etc.

Everyone desires success distilled, the scale reduced to the simplest of bullet points, but when people turn mazes into maps they tend to erase the litter of dead ends, wrong turns, and tar pits. Yet all of those “paths” were instrumental in the final destination. The path without failure and screw-up is worse than a maze; it’s an intellectual prison that stops us from overcoming challenges and giving up our work for those who were “destined” to succeed.

You remember the anecdote about Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck. He said diplomacy was like a wanderer in the woods. You try a direct approach, but it is often blocked, so other trails, rivers, bridges, and risks are needed. All that matters is the way across, whatever way it might be. What your map might have suggested was the right way is irrelevant. All that matters is negotiating the maze to the other side. Which is where hindsight bias is a liar.

Because that maze you went through? It won’t repeat, not beyond general shapes (publishing is tough) and sizes (you have to make lots of things to generate lots of opportunities) and scales (being a better writer can often help you sell, but connections and a simple style are more fiscally valuable). But those twists and turns and monsters and traps? They were your own. To make it mirror someone else’s maze, you need to erase the failures, regrets, and fuck-ups; the temporal bias; the personal relationships; the uniqueness of your own work.

Sure, wisdom can be compressed to a degree. Yes, patterns, echoes, and portents fill comparative examples. But the actual transformation of your maze into a map is singular, good or ill. The warrior-poet Basho said it best: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” Turn your maze into a map as unique as your work, and, maybe, it will lead you to a success as cool and unique as your career.

Jason S. Ridler

Jason RidlerJason S. Ridler is a writer, historian, and actor. He is the author of The Brimstone Files, and his latest historical work Mavericks of War was called a “visceral read that is also an important piece of scholarship” by Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes. He is a Teaching Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and teaches creative writing at Google, Youtube, and for private clients.

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