How to: Avoiding bad decisions

Yesterday I talked about finding good guidance.  Following incorrect or misleading advice won’t do your career any good.  You also need to be careful because there are people who take advantage of writers and can make you waste a lot of time and money – some of them end up tying up your work or your copyright for long periods of time.  Some of these people may be well-meaning but clueless, while others are out-and-out scammers.  With experience you can learn to spot them, but you have to be aware that they exist. 


One of the best ways to keep from falling for scams and other “deals” that are bad for your health is to develop what martial artists call aiki, or impassive mind.  Basically, the idea is that harboring emotions like fear, doubt and confusion make it hard for you to respond in a healthy way to challenges and opportunities.  Having an impassive mind means taking a second to step away from the excitement or pressure of the moment and make a judgment or decision based on what’s really best for you at this time.  There is always time to take a deep breath and think about what you’re getting into before you get into it. 


Scammers rely on writers to make ill-considered decisions in order to walk off with your money.


Suppose you’ve sent a manuscript to an agent and she says, “I love your work!  I’d like to represent it, and I’ll need $2,000 upfront for us to get started.”  If you’re new to the business and haven’t done a lot of homework, you may be thrilled at the prospect, scrape together the money and send it off to the agent, hoping to hear back soon that she’s managed to place your manuscript with an imprint of Simon & Schuster.


But if you step back for a moment and clear your mind, it’s easier for you to ask, “Hmm, I wonder if this is the right thing to do.”  Then you can do a bit of research and learn that legitimate agents don’t charge fees upfront. 


It’s not just scams that you can avoid by cultivating aiki.  Pressure to make snap decisions that you’ll later regret can also be handled.  Suppose an editor calls you up in response to a pitch you’ve sent, offers an assignment, states how much the publication can pay, then says, “Can you have it done by Tuesday?” 


Such pressure may push you to say yes to both the fee and the deadline, yet maybe the fee isn’t sufficient for the work and the deadline is too rushed for you to do a good job.  If you work on developing aiki, instead of feeling as if you might lose an opportunity if you don’t agree right away, you can say something like, “Let me double-check my calendar and get back to you in a few minutes.”  (Or later this afternoon or whatever is appropriate for you to do the clear thinking and any research you may need to do.)


Rarely is any professional decision so urgent that you must act now.  And on the off-chance that you’ll lose an opportunity by pausing and thinking about it, that’s a much better risk to take than to commit yourself to a decision that you’ll regret.