In Malcom Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, there is a brief snippet about French artist Jules Holtzapffel. You see, in 19th century France, the ultimate acheivement in a the life of a painter was to be selected for The Salon, the most prestigious art show in the world.
In 1866, Jules Holtzapffel was not selected. He committed suicide soon after.
His note read,
The members of the jury have rejected me. Therefore I have no talent, and I must die.
Holtzapffel couldn’t live in a world where he wasn’t accepted by the gatekeepers of his profession. A painter in this era was a worthy profession, and Holtzapffel had likely spent his life preparing for admittance to the Salon. When he was passed over, he wasn’t enough without it. He wasn’t picked, and so he wasn’t good enough.
Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro former a small group of artists known as the Impressionists. A few had paintings chosen by the Salon, but most did not. Their art was too scandalous, as one painting led to an atmosphere of hysteria and fear (Manet’s Olympia).
They were not on the Salon’s most loved list. They didn’t get invited to the biggest party in the world. Though The Salon members were very selective, the number of paintings selected was not a small number. The average number paintings featured was between three and four thousand! As we saw in Holtzapffel’s sad ending, being picked mattered.
There are wonderful essays you can read about picking yourself and bypassing the gatekeepers . The internet and other digital tools have leveled the playing field of publishing, platform-building, and gathering a tribe. But it’s still easy to slip in to hoping someone will notice you and say “You’ve made it, come join our Salon.”
I’ve experienced this over the past couple of months. Whether applying for jobs, pitching ideas, writing posts, or contributing to discussions, I’ve noticed a distinct inner tension. I’m always hoping this will be the job/post/idea people will notice. Someone who is more important than me will see it, contact me, and say,
Matt, this is the most brilliant resume/post/idea I’ve ever seen! Would you please join our club? Here, let me open the gate for you! Oh, and don’t forget your signing bonus!
In essence, this is what I’ve hoped for.
When we’re building our online presence, I think we begin with the belief we are bypassing the gatekeepers. But I’ve also realized removing the need to be picked is very difficult. We hope someone who’s already “made it” will in turn make us. But thinking this way is an unending spiral of disappointment. If we can’t seperate the need to be picked from creating our own brand of art, we’ll forever be caught in disappointment and resentment. There will always be another gatekeeper, and seeking them out is a poor way to spend your life.
Let’s go back to France and see what the Impressionists did. Their paintings were not having a good track record at The Salon. So, they had two options:
1. Change their art to reflect the style Salon members normally picked.
The Impressionists did not find this style particularly meaningful or enjoyable, and would have constituted a significant change in their own beliefs of what art was. However, this option did not guarantee acceptance in to the Salon on a yearly basis, but it did increase their chances.
2. Stage their own art show, featuring their work and the works of like-minded painters.
Thankfully, the Impressionists chose door #2, and art was never the same. You could argue entrepreneurship, business, and promotion has changed forever as well. This small gang of French painters had turned their back on the status quo, created their own market, and their own set of rules. You can do the same as well. Here are three lessons we can learn.
Conformity increases chances, but it’s not you.
The work you have to do on earth is yours alone, and you must do it. If you find yourself constantly striving and seeking out the gatekeepers, find another tribe. Gatekeepers will disappoint you many more times than choose you. You don’t have to play by their rules.
Put on a show!
The internet has made staging your own show possible. Putting up a website can be done in a weekend, and there are a staggering amount of great online portfolios to showcase your art, writing, design, software, or whatever else you do to stand out.
Need a real-life presence? Start a little club! Dave Delany famously started Geek Breakfast in Nashville, and now it has grown to # of cities. All he did was get a group of like-minded people together, and set them loose. Find Meetups in your area and your niche, and start sharing.
Stop waiting to be picked
People are choosing to start in spite of the fact that no one’s given them permission. And this is what makes them so attractive. These are the trail-blazers, the trendsetters, and true difference-makers of our day. They’re the ones crazy enough to change the world. And you could be one of them, too. If you would just stop waiting. – Jeff Goins
If you’re hoping that the HR people you sent your resume to are about to pick you, it’s going to be a long wait. Once you understand that there are problems just waiting to be solved, once you realize that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound. – Seth Godin
Thanks for reading everyone, it’s a blessing to share with you. Please keep the conversation going in the comments.
Picture via David Goehring
Everything I Know
I write about developing your best self, regularly delivered on Friday