On making it up, or the virtues of make believe

As I pulled off my tennis shoes just inside my front door that day after fifth grade, I heard my mother say it, “No one knows what they’re doing.” She, in a simple response to a query I had about some confusing adult thing or another, continued, “You know, we’re all just making it up as we go along.” And there it was. In one fell sentence, she had introduced me to the secret of adulthood.

While the secrets of adulthood are many (we can say no, doctors no longer fix things, we can actually learn new skills), the sentiment of expertise is less contested. Or, less often revealed anyway. People aspire to be expert. And more often, we assume the following: we grow up, we become experts, the end. With age, we gain wisdom. Nothing could be simpler. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Early on, my mother exposed this myth — casually, just after piano practice and before dinnertime. Adults too were making it up. Adults were winging it. It has been an invaluable insight that’s guided me my whole life.

So what follows, really, are the virtues of making it up:

1. Style

I don’t know is, in fact, the most important secret to reveal.

Before we knew design, before we knew what we did was “a profession,” we wrote. We sat patiently through grammar class, learning when the participle dangled and the sentence ran on. As we got older, we were handed down paperbacks gilded with lessons and rules about how to write. Guidelines from Strunk & White guided our grammar and high school prose. But if we braved on, we may have encountered a different kind of grammatical attitude. Grammar rules dropped away, and we were left to our own devices. If we forgot the rules, we could speak and write in our own voice, we could develop a style that could only be our own.

2. Tolerance.

In the land of making it up, there is no word for “misstep,” no dictionary entry for “mistake.” Such words would assume there is a right way to do something. Tolerance, then, is a way of life. And seeking others who experiment and fail is encouraged and celebrated.

3. More making.

Make believe is contagious. So do what feels right. What moves you. What inspires you. Make up more.

Far earlier, even before fifth grade, I discovered Fred Rogers with his make-believe and Neighborhood itself who said, “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.” These virtues of make believe, no matter how deeply we trust the notion we’re all making it up together, still take a lifetime to trust.

In the meantime, I’m making it up.