A few months ago on the Australian version of X Factor, a high school dropout named Bella Ferraro walked on stage. As we’ve come to expect, she nailed her first stanza and the crowd began to cheer.
The reason I bring this up is because after that positive response, Ferraro looks shocked. Her smile says, “Holy crap, maybe I am good enough.”
I’m fascinated by this response. Right before this moment, Ferraro is the exact same girl with the exact same talents as the girl after that moment. But now she knows how talented she actually was, and is.
It occurs to me that there are thousands of people with extraordinary abilities — ones they hone day after day — but with no real validation from others that they are, truly, brilliant. We are told as children that it doesn’t matter what other people think — that we should do what we love, no matter the feedback we receive from other humans. But humans are biologically social creatures; we yearn to satisfy others, and we want to see how others react when they are satisfied. Chimps don’t simply groom each other; they do it in front of their pack. Kids don’t simply study to get an ‘A’; they do to make their parents proud.
The feedback we get from others defines a large part of who we are.
Vincent Van Gogh was an artist in the 18th century, and as we know his art was never appreciated during his lifetime. I always assumed Van Gogh was unsure about the quality of his work — unsure whether he really was a terrible artist. But a century later, Australian art critic Robert Hughes wrote a phrase that would be repeated thousands of times, and eventually end up at the bottom of Van Gogh’s Wikipedia entry:
Van Gogh’s late works show an artist at the height of his ability, completely in control and “longing for concision and grace.”
One one hand, it’s incredible that Van Gogh got to that point with such negative feedback throughout his life. (Hughes points out that van Gogh really was a terrible artist early on.) But the bigger question is whether Van Gogh — arguably the most graceful artist ever — knew he was that good.
I have to think he was at best unsure. Van Gogh had one cheerleader: his brother Theo. Bella has thousands of people cheering for her, and she still seemed unsure. I don’t think that’s unusual, because even the most talented people are unsure. They lack of self-confidence — they feel like frauds.
We live in a world designed to give us positive feedback. We post on Facebook and get comments — and because it takes too much effort to comment, we invented “Likes”: one-click, primal validation. It lacks definition. It feels good. But it does not make us any less fraudulent, or more importantly it does not make us feel any less fraudulent, as much as we may try.
The reason I write about Van Gogh and Bella is because I think I identify with them — or, more accurately, I yearn to have a moment that validates my abilties, at least for a moment. Each day I go into work and feel somewhat like a fraud. I am technically a programmer, which means I should know how to program. But there are days — many days — when I look at my code and I feel like I’m playing with Lincoln Logs while my peers are building skyscrapers.
It bothers me worse when I think about being a writer. I question whether I’m decent, despite support from friends and family. But in fact, I don’t have much of an idea of what makes a good writer or not — I just like what I like, and dislike what I don’t, which includes a lot of supposedly-amazing stuff. People occassionally like what I write, but I’m still waiting for my Simon Cowell to tell me I suck.
I fear being uncovered as a fraud. I’m also ready for it. In a way — for better or worse — it drives me.
In that X Factor audition, Bella continues to sing for a few minutes and, occassionally, the producers cut to a shot of her mom who is watching nervously. Even with the crowd cheering, her mom looks unsure whether they will continue to love her child. But there’s a certain moment when the judges and crowd are on their feet and there is no question that she is, in fact, brilliant. And her mom begins to smile because even with Bella’s abilities are completely vulnerable and exposed — with little to hide — people love it.
I’ve come to a point in writing, programming, relationships — hell, my whole life — where I feel I need expose myself, not because I want to be strong or honest, but because I no longer want to feel like a fraud. It’s a hit to my pride, but it’s better than the alternative.
Only 19 days before his death (which is thought to be a suicide), Van Gogh wrote the following words to his brother and sister:
So — having arrived back here, I have set to work again — although the brush is almost falling from my fingers — and because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I have painted three more large canvases. They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness. I hope you will be seeing them soon since I’d like to bring them to you in Paris as soon as possible. I’m fairly sure that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside.