Follow the leader

In college, I took a painting/art history class where we were supposed to copy paintings produced in different styles during the 20th century. Mimic-ing Çezanne, Picasso, Mondrian and Mark Rothko drew me into a new world of color, line and creative messiness. I worked hard at reproducing paintings that were as similar to these artists as I could make them. I made an A in the class and continued painting even after college was over.

Eventually, I decided to reproduce a Picasso for my Mom for Mother’s Day. I worked at this for weeks, painting, repainting, going back and reworking different parts of it, but the edges of the painting were causing problems because they weren’t lining up like Picasso’s. I saw this as a failure and was beating myself up for not being able to get the lines at the edges in exactly the right place.

Defeated, I took the unfinished work to my night-time, continuing-ed drawing class at the local art institute.

“You are ready to fill in the edges on your own,” my drawing teacher said. “Eventually you have to recognize that you are working your own canvas and that it’s not going to be exactly like Picasso’s or anyone else’s and it’s still going to be wonderful.”

I had reached the end of my journey with Picasso without even knowing it.

Although I obviously won’t ever meet Picasso, the effort I put into mimic-ing his work could just as well have been writing javascript or building a web app. Picasso, although dead, could have been any of the fearless leaders, self-anointed or otherwise on the internet or conference speaker circuit. In fact, even though Picasso is about as far removed from me personally as anyone could be, the moment when I was ready to start doing my own thing slipped past me as these moments often do.

That’s what happens when we follow a leader.

Dat pedestal tho

It’s hard to believe in yourself enough to give up on the structure and stability of someone whose work you admire or believe in. Even if it’s someone we know or are close to, someone who believes in us and tells us we should believe in ourselves, it’s easier to keep clinging to the faux security blanket of someone else’s expertise. We put them up on a pedestal and, when someone questions us, all we have to do is point upward, nevermind the fact that this robs us of living our own lives.

I’ve also found that as a woman, what I know is questioned or I am flatly dismissed so often that our social system has trained me to always have a source I can cite, a paper I can refer to or someone, usually a straight, white man whose opinions others are willing to trust since they won’t believe what I have to say or in what I’ve learned through the school of experience.

This is ultimately how the system reinforces itself, paving over people of all colors and all genders. It has taken serious effort, many therapist sessions and a ring of people in my life who constantly reinforce a message to me that I am enough on my own to do what I need to do, to try something different and to work out my own edges.

In fact, I no longer follow “leaders.” Instead, I’ve taken leaders off of the pedestal and re-framed them. These are real people who have lessons to teach but who also have their own faults and imperfections. This means I also have a healthy distrust of being told someone is a leader and that I should blindly follow them. That’s how a community winds up in the grip of someone abusive who won’t let go.

There will always be people we follow, but it’s important to recognize your own value enough to know when you’ve gotten the lesson you needed. This way you’ll be ready to see that moment when it is time to take a risk and do your own thing, even if you don’t think you’re “ready.” After all, that’s how many of the people we follow got their own start.

This is how each of us creates our own masterpiece, taking the lessons of the people in our lives and filling in with our own brushstrokes around theirs.