He broke first his right leg. Then his left. Neither healed right – maybe because of an undiagnosed genetic disease. The result was an adult torso, but with really short legs – making for an odd body.
The perfect kind for people to mock. And mock they did.
But he came from an aristocratic family and had demonstrated, from early on, that he was great with a sketch pad and a pencil. So his parents got him training.
Still, he didn't pass his initial college entrance exams and had to take them a second time just to get in to finish his studies.
His mom wanted him to become a famous and respected painter. But he preferred sketching prostitutes.
I first heard his story when I was in elementary school. My aunt had some of his prints on her walls. So I naturally asked questions about the dancing girl at the Moulin Rouge.
And I learned about a troubled and challenged guy who kept pushing forward, all the while drinking himself to death. I took to reading about him and what stood out to me was his diligence and work ethic.
Wikipedia highlights the ridiculous amount of art created by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec over two decades:
“Throughout his career, which spanned less than 20 years, Toulouse-Lautrec created 737 canvases, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, some ceramic and stained glass work, and an unknown number of lost works.”
He worked hard. Regularly. He kept pushing forward. And the result was a tremendous body of work, even while being mocked. His peers didn't consider him much of a painter – but he out-worked many of them, and has become incredibly well known.
Why is his story important?
Two years ago I started thinking much more about this thing called “the impostor syndrome.” Simply defined, it's when we're unable to internalize our own success. Instead, as we hear compliments and praise, our deeper fears suggest that any minute now we'll be caught for not being nearly as great as we're hearing.
I've lived in this dynamic since I was born. And that's no joke. I was born 3 months premature. In 1970. The odds of survival were 50%. And doctors told my mom to have another kid quickly, because it was questionable if I'd make it. It's no surprise my brother is 15 months younger than me.
I spent months and years visiting doctors as a child, playing games and taking tests – all to determine the degree of brain damage that may have resulted from my early beginnings. So naturally, I worked hard to learn, to be smart, and to hide any struggle for fear that it might mean I really was damaged goods.
That hard work has turned into several decades of success. Success that I should have and would have internalized, if I could have. But honestly, it never stuck..
And so I've done a decent amount of reading. Most of the research and writing about the concept is for women, who struggle to accept the success they've worked so hard for. Almost makes it feel like something a guy can't claim.
But then I heard (and later read) Henri's story. And I appreciated that his response – his strategy – was two-fold: hard work, and surrounding himself with a set of close friends who accepted him as is.
His story is important because it's inspiring.
Do you know what's not inspiring?
If there's a phrase I hate more than “Fake it until you make it,” I can't think of it.
I hate it because it encourages people to be fake. When authenticity is so critical!
I hate it because it suggests that we might all be faking – and that's not something I need to hear. After all, I think it already. So hearing it externalized isn't helpful. It reinforces negative self-talk.
And mostly I hate it because it suggests that the road to success (“making it”) comes from deceit instead of hard work.
And since none of us ever know who may be struggling with feeling like an impostor, let's do them all a favor of taking this little phrase out of our lexicon.
What do you say?