My work is driven by small miracles.
People pay me to come up with ideas, but I am not certain where they come from. I meet with a client, and they tell me what sort of information they want to convey, and why. They hand me some data, and maybe a sketch or two. I promise that I will meet their needs by a certain deadline, and then I leave the room, having no clue what the end product will look like.
This is the life of a creative professional. I know how to make perfunctory maps, but to make something good and unique? That requires magic. I cannot will it into existence, but must wait patiently for it to occur. First you’re working on something that looks terrible, and then the Idea appears that fixes it and makes it good. Or maybe it doesn’t, and things keep looking terrible for a little longer. Each of us has our own rituals and practices to make the Idea more likely to come around — meditating, looking at other people’s art, talking to friends, or, if you’re Don Draper: napping, drinking, and movies.
It can be frustrating, and it can be worrying, to sit there staring at the blank canvas and hoping that you will not fail to deliver on your promises. To be without a set of clear, well-defined steps to reach excellence. To keep moving forward requires faith. To understand that you have the tools to succeed, and that the correct combination of synapses will eventually fire in your brain sooner rather than later.
Not all of mapmaking is so dependent on magic, to be sure. There are many tasks which are rote and uncreative, and there are clients who simply want you to produce something you’ve already done before (or to follow their specific instructions). In truth, that’s most of my work. But occasionally someone says, “it should look scholarly and modern,” or “these data sets should be shown in an entirely new, cutting-edge way,” and those aren’t really instructions. Now you must have faith that the Idea will come to you.
Having faith is about more than just the Idea, too. Even if someone comes to you with a specific style example to copy, it may be something you’ve never done before. I’ve never gone from A to B before, but now I need to decide if I want to commit to taking an unfamiliar path, by a certain deadline, and do a good job along the way.
This is a business, like many others, that requires faith in oneself. That you will figure it out; that you will eventually stumble upon that Idea; that you will figure out software or the data or whatever is necessary to deliver on what someone asks of you. That you have it in yourself to succeed at ill-defined tasks.
This sort of faith and confidence has long been a weak point for me, but becoming an accidental freelancer has been very good for teaching me that I can figure things out. My work is a constant source of self-surprise. Almost nothing I’ve made is something I would have imagined myself as making just a short time before. But as time goes on I have learned to have faith in my ability to get through each new task, and to be open to the right moment of inspiration.
It helps, as well, to be surrounded by a network of helpful and friendly colleagues, without whose aid I would much worse off. They show me the way from A to B when I am not certain how. And sometimes, when I am waiting for the Idea to come, it visits them instead, and they share it with me. Having such support helps give me the confidence to look clients in the eye and say, “Yes, I can do that for you.” Even if I don’t know how just yet.
As Bradbury said: Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.