We can't rely on the world to tell us our value

Originally published in Post Grad Survival Guide.

It’s the classic, almost mythical story we’ve all heard numerous times.

A brilliant, innovative artist, writer, musician, scientist, humanitarian, philosopher, whatever toils away in obscurity for decades. Their work piles up in a dusty, ramshackle apartment. They rely on handouts from friends and family to survive. Or they waste their talents at a miserable day job. The misery of endless rejection drives them to self-destruction or even insanity. 

The world isn’t ready for their work. Ultimately, they die alone and unknown, perhaps at their own hand. Only then does the world wake up and see their genius. But it’s too late.

Franz Kafka. Emily Dickinson. Vincent Van Gogh. Francesca Woodman. Gregor Mendel. We could name a hundred, a thousand others. There are countless stories like this. The details vary, but the uniting thread is a sense of hopeless waste. All that talent, energy, and creative passion burnt up on simple survival.

When we hear these stories, the reflex is often to say how uncultured the general public is. How idiotic people at the time were not to have seen the genius. What swines.

Those editors, curators, gatekeepers and middlemen of all sorts — they’re all terrible. Time to get rid of them with another app. We love to relish in our own deep appreciation of their work, sure we would have seen it at the time.

But I don’t think that’s quite the right lesson to draw from these stories. They’re not proof that middlemen are evil. They don’t reveal the dull tyranny of popular tastes.

Instead they point to an inevitable truth: we can’t rely on the world to tell us our value. We cannot let the metrics of others dictate our sense of worth.

Look, assuming you don’t live in the absolute middle of nowhere, within a mile radius of wherever you are right now, there’s probably someone singing their heart out an open mic, or trying to peddle their poetry books in a little store, or watching strangers use their artwork as a backdrop for Instagram pictures while they wonder how they’ll pay the bills. 

Even though it might be really good, you probably don’t give a fuck because the world hasn’t told you that you should. That’s why middlemen exist in the first place — they let us outsource the effort of deciding who and what to value.

***

When I wrote about self-acceptance, I pointed out that one of the worst ways to stop hating yourself is to focus on your best, measurable qualities: appearance, intelligence, wealth, success, accolades, popularity. 

Those qualities may be worth celebrating and they may make you feel good in the short term. They’re also fragile. In fact, they almost inevitably crumble at some point and leave us with nothing.

Winston Churchill, for instance, notched countless incredible social, political, and artistic achievements throughout his life. For decades, he was revered and lauded by millions, fed constant validation. But as Churchill reached old age and his mind began to fade, he was forced to face himself — the person beneath the success. 

As Anthony Storr writes in Churchill’s Black Dog, a deep despair overtook the former prime minister as he realised it all meant nothing to him:

A whole career may be dedicated to the pursuit of power, or the conquest of women, or the gaining of wealth, only in the end to leave the person face to face with despair and a sense of futility, since he has never incorporated within himself a sense of his value as a person; and no amount of external success can ultimately compensate for this.

And:

Fame often serves as a substitute for love in those who are uncertain of obtaining love, and work is often substituted for the self as a focus of self-esteem… Success and public recognition can, in some degree, compensate for inner emptiness by providing injections of self-esteem from external sources.

***

When we build our self-esteem upon external notions of value, we’re just postponing our current insecurities until some future time when we’re forced to face them. 

Then years of buried uncertainty and doubt emerge because there’s nothing to shield us from it. 

What strikes me if how ingrained this approach is. For instance, people tell me — on a daily basis, both online and in person — that I’m doing X well for a 20-year old, or that I’ve achieved a lot for my age, or that I’m unusually mature. 

Whether that’s true or not, it’s not something I like to focus on too much. Every day, I wake up older. In two months, I’ll be twenty-one. It’s not going to do my future self any favours if I base my current sense of accomplishment on my age. Or if I’m conditioned to believe anything I achieve only matters because I’m at an arbitrary number of circulations around the sun.

Something as superficial and brief as age is a terrible source of self-esteem. When I hear those words from people, I think about the years of hard work it took me to get to this stage, the endless sacrifices, the willingness to give up on fun stuff like socialising and dating and going out because I love what I do. I tie that passion to the process of improvement itself, not to my age which will be irrelevant in a couple of years.

***

Perhaps that’s why we have such a compulsive societal tendency to glorify artists who die young. We don’t see them lose the very thing that gives them value.

 We get to preserve that single image. To float on one quote. To draw decades worth of fascination from the moment when light hits cheekbones. From the poem sprawled across a final page. From the blurred photograph of someone looking a little lost and yet aloof.

When they do survive, we mock them. We tell them to stop doing what they’ve trained their whole lives to do. What the world had trained them to do. We expect them to stop pulling the lever because we don’t want to keep dispensing attention pellets. 

As if they can just step off the treadmill of creation and promotion that’s considered the pinnacle of achievement.

This is telling, isn’t it? But it’s what we do to ourselves.

***

What’s the alternative? I haven’t figured that part out, yet I’d guess it’s just fundamental acceptance without excessive attachment to anything too fragile. Which is hard work, hence the proliferation of bite-sized self-esteem boosts: affirmations, post-it note messages, compliments. 

But increasingly, I’m finding it to be a process of catching myself looking outwards, and instead looking inwards, trying to remain unattached to external validation while still appreciating it.