Resisting the God Complex – the value of trial and error

I recently rediscovered Tim Harford’s Ted Talk about Trial and Error and the God Complex when I listened to an episode of the Ted Radio hour about Failure. I couldn’t help but think about how relevant all of this is to writing. It also connects back to what I talked about last week in regards to being able to let others critique your work and resist the urge to want to produce perfect work from the get go.

The God Complex, named such by Archie Cochrane (a Scottish doctor who had a more than interesting biography), is described by Harford as follows:

“..the symptoms of the God Complex: no matter how complicated a problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief, that you are infallibly right in your solution.”

So, what’s that got to do with writing?


When you are writing, you ARE God. So having a God Complex kind of comes naturally to all of us. Our story, our rules.

World building is incredibly complex. Writing relationships is complex. Most problems we throw at our characters are complex. Getting all of that to work is difficult. We write, we work hard, we do our best. At some point, we make a decision, take one solution and run with it. If all goes well, at the end, we have a manuscript.

Here’s a hard thruth:

You might have chosen wrong. You might have overlooked a complication. You might have made a decision that, despite your best efforts, makes no sense or leads to inconsistencies even though you as the author should know your world and characters best.

This is why challenging the romantic notion of the striving, lonely author is vital. Get together with other people. Talk about your idea. Talk about the complexities. Listen to what others have to say.*

Send your story through trial and error cycles.

For some people, talking about their stories early on kills their drive. Other people lose heart when someone points out a mistake after the manuscript is finished (or halfway done) that could have already been avoided during the plotting stage.

I won’t tell you when to start taking your story to other people, but do it. Find out what works for you. That might be as early as a first plot sessions with (critical but kind) writer friends or as late as when the manuscript is done and beta readers come in. Try out a few ways to get feedback and settle on a routine that is good for you.

Most of all, cultivate a mindset that allows you to entertain the idea that you might have gotten some parts of your story or the way you told it wrong. 

I’ll be honest with you here: I HATE having other people give me input for my plots. It makes my skin crawl just to think about it. At the beginning of a new project I am extremely dismissive of every outside input. Because it’s my idea, my world, I know how this is supposed to work … yes. Exactly. Hello, God Complex.

Letting go of some of this protectiveness wasn’t easy. Over time, I’ve learned that a decent place for input for me  is a tad later, when I’ve started writing (and often, have run into my first problems. Help!).

What I want to say with that is: acknowledge your emotions. Don’t force something onto yourself that takes away your joy of creating art. Be aware of the fact where your sensitivities are, of when you are too vulnerable. Once you’ve done that, find your point of least resistance. Step out of your comfort zone and then find what works.

Harford mentions a beautiful example from the world of the performing arts about how listening to your critics, abandoning the notion that you and only you know what’s right for your art and putting in the work can turn a seeming failure into a roaring success.

In 2002, choreographer Twyla Tharp faced harsh criticism at the Chicago opening for her dance musical “Movin’ out” set to Billy Idol songs. It didn’t work for the critics and “Wildly uneven” and “Fuzzy and confusing” where only a few of the comments made.

Tharp did what no one expected: she set to work herself. She gathered all the criticism, went back to her piece and revised. She tweaked and improved, adapted along the responses she got to make sure the audience got the full experience.

When the show went to New York, it was a roaring success. One of the comments from a critic praised it as “Setting a new standard for the rock musical.”

Tharp could have simply sat down and said: They don’t understand my art. She didn’t. She understood that what she had tried wasn’t (yet) working and set out to improve it.

In the beginning, many spectators didn’t stay after the intermission. Yet, there were some who did and even cheered. In an article in the New York Times, Tharp put her thought process into very simple words:

”We must be doing something right,” Ms. Tharp said she thought. ”Let’s do more of what we’re doing right.”

That, in a nutshell, is what trial and error lets you do. If you abandon your notion of being infallibly right and learn to listen to your peers and your audience, you will find your strengths and you will learn how to enhance them. 

A note of caution at the end: abandoning your resistance to trying and failing and to adapting to reader responses is very different from running after every cricitism you receive. Learn to recognize patterns in any criticism (and praise!) directed at your work. Send your ego for a walk and find out which of those could serve your texts if you work on them. Then take them head on.


*You can absolutely do that on your own as well. Run through a few variations of your plot / a character’s motivation / a way to structure your world/ whatever the problem is you are faced with. Evaluate them honestly and try to keep your love for your (current) favorite solution at bay. However, in the end it is tantamount that you get input from someone who is not you. Someone who is not in love with the idea, who doesn’t know all the fancy background details and can look at the whole thing with a certain detachment. Contrary to popular believe (good) authors are pack animals in one way or another.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s