It was three AM. I gently tucked away my problem set on Prandtl Meyer fan angles in my Longchamp and begrudgingly shifted my attention to a crib sheet for a midterm the next morning. As I rubbed my tired, swollen eyes a deep sadness washed over me. Never had I tried so hard at anything and repeatedly failed. Never had I encountered such growth, not only in my learning but also in my mindset only to be ‘rewarded’ by disappointing results.
Feeling dispirited, I dejectedly flipped through my copy of Creative Inspiration by Vincent Van Gogh – a hidden treasure not featured on the ‘Best-Selling’ shelves of the Van Gogh Museum shop, but compelling nonetheless. What had drawn me to this particular paperback was not its striking royal blue color but rather its blurb that read:
“A wonderful journey for creatives – with the man who fought harder than almost any other for the right, space and strength to be an artist.”
Van Gogh is widely known for his tumultuous life as for his vividly expressive paintings. After stumbling through numerous careers he eventually took up art and moved from the Netherlands to Paris and then the South of France. As the tale goes, his troubles with mental health culminated in his suicide after a heated discussion with a peer. This was rather tragic as his works began to make headway with selling after his death, causing him to rise to fame only post-death.
To fight for the ‘right, space and strength’ to be an artist, or in my case an aerospace engineer felt particularly relevant. These past few grueling months, I constantly felt as though I was fighting twice as hard to make a place for myself within the classroom – to understand and apply concepts that everyone else seemed to be understanding much easily. Therefore it almost felt natural to draw parallels between my experiences and that of an underdog and a prodigy, or Van Gogh and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, after engaging with their works for two months.
Van Gogh was mostly a self-taught artist. He taught himself to draw using a range of books about drawing techniques, perspective and anatomy. His experiences at the art academy in Brussels and Antwerp or in artist Fernand Cormon’s studio in Paris were all quite short lived. Instead he created his own program, which involved him copying endless examples of drawings. All in all he did not have much official artistic education.
In contrast there was Wolfgang Mozart, an icon who is famously known for being a child prodigy. My visit to Mozart’s Birthplace led me to learn that even at the age of four, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart absorbed everything to do with music with a tremendous appetite and seemingly without effort. Not only did he already know how to play his first instruments, the piano and the violin, but was also composing his first piano concerto.
While I am far from having met anyone who has been dubbed a ‘child prodigy’, it has been quite easy to get carried away by the notion that some are inherently better at certain things than others. It is in these moments that it is important to draw upon inspiration from the underdogs such as Van Gogh and reflect upon the reasons for feeling inadequate. The following quotes curated in small doses from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother and peers are my initial go-to.
Step One: Inspiration
1. If something in you yourself says ‘you aren’t a painter’ its then that you should paint.
2. But the way to do it better later is to do it as well as one can today, there can’t be anything but progress tomorrow.
3. For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession on little things that are brought together.
4. Almost no one knows that the secret of good beautiful work is to a large extent good faith and a sincere feeling.
5. We must treat the world with so much good heart, so much energy…
Photo courtesy September Publishing
My next antidote is self-reflection.
Step Two: Reflection
There is a possibility that a large part of the reason I feel like I am constantly falling short is because it seems as though everyone around me is succeeding. However there is a greater possibility that those people are struggling with other aspects of their lives.
Next time I feel like comparing myself to others, I stop and ask myself this: When was the last time my life was perfect? Never – and that is the same for everyone. Note to self: Embrace the mess that is in the present and know that everyone else is doing the same.
The fact that I have been through lows means that I have also been at highs. I have felt this way before. Using this knowledge to remember the highs is the crux to getting back up. What is important is realizing that these motions are temporary and that I need to actively pursue whatever it is that makes me feel incredible and inspired, with knowledge that there is promise right around the corner.
Next time I feel low, I stop and ask myself this: What makes me decide to fight for happiness? What can I do right now that will put me on the road to joy again?
While it is difficult to find the sunshine and butterflies at every corner it is possible to believe that they are in fact there. It is possible to strive for optimism and actively be wary of my attitude. It is possible to take a deep breath and appreicate what I already have. A friend and fitness influencer recently posted an infographic titled ‘Signs That You Are Winning at Life’. This included: having access to clean water, food, shelter, the internet, freedom and clean clothes. It is so easy to ‘get caught up in the negative things that cloud our life’, he said. ‘Let us remind ourselves of the luxuries and relationships we do have’.
"Gratitude is my antidote to the poison of inadequacy" - Arinzé Obi, Medium contributor
When these do not feel enough I turn to a message composed by my A1 since day one – mum.
“What if you are not extraordinary? What if you only sometimes make the honor roll or get your name on the Dean’s list? What if you don’t have the smallest waistline or the shiniest hair or the cutest outfits? What if you aren’t the best? In the end I ask other questions, more important questions, like: Are you contented and are you kind? Are you healthy and do you have the right mind? Do you love yourself enough to take care - to stay safe but feel free to dare?
Do you have things that you care deeply about: Passions, hobbies, your father and I, a community and a conscience to shape a better world?
Can you feel my love for you shining through every moment of your life, despite being so far away? That even then you are so remembered and loved?
Will you have the things you need to make it through this life, find some unbelievably joyous moments on long dark nights and those long stretches of mundane work?
Can you look around at this life we’ve tried to build for you - how it is right here, right now, in the ordinary – can you find it to be extraordinary?
If yes, then I feel extraordinary - honored to call myself your Mother.”
Focusing on failures rather than successes is inevitable, but I hope to find in myself the courage to continue fighting for the ‘right, space and strength’ to be an aerospace engineer.