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The Messy Canvas

May 25, 2018    |   by Holli Fawcett Clayton

As so many prepare to graduate this time of year, I can’t help but think back to my own high school graduation.

At almost eighteen years old, I’d stepped off a stage—diploma in hand—ready to take on a whole new world. My life was a blank canvas, and I couldn’t wait to begin painting it.

Because I had a plan. And come what may, I was going to be successful.

Well, friends… let’s examine my journey:

Me, as a high school senior in 1993: Accepted to Vanderbilt University, planning to graduate with a biology degree and attend medical school like my mother, certain that I’d meet the sweetest, smartest man ever and raise a perfect family with him. And we’d live happily ever after (cue the music).   

Fast-forward twenty-five years.

Me, in 2018, at age 42: No degree from Vanderbilt (transferred back home to Arkansas after my freshman year). Went to law school instead (because I was terrified that I might accidentally kill someone if I became a doctor). Decided to stay home with kids after working for a few short years as an attorney. No career to speak of today (except for a few blogging gigs here and there). Am now actually married to the sweetest man, but only after an embarrassing, ugly divorce from my first husband—which took a nasty, very public toll on my three beautiful children.


Not exactly the beautiful picture I’d planned to portray. Somewhere along the way, my canvas got a little messy. I missed a few brush-strokes somehow.

Over time, this has plagued me. Because I tried so hard to make my canvas to look like other “successful” people’s canvases—and man, it just doesn’t.

Mine isn’t the picture of success that so many want to see. I fell short of the degree from the fancy university. I gave up the high-powered career.  I don’t have the perfect, unbroken family. In sum, I’ve failed to fit the mold that our lockstep society expected of me.

Yep, my canvas is messy. Definitely not as pretty as some of the other ones. And as I look around and continuously compare mine to others, it gets worse.

My perfectionist inner voice will condescendingly whisper to me, asking the following:

So you missed the beautiful-canvas mark… well, what now? Are you a complete failure? What must others think of you? What’s left? Where exactly do you go from here?

And my realistic, hopeful heart will answer: Hey, perfectionist inner voice: shutup, already!  

Friends, there’s so much pressure in life. Pressure to be like everyone else. Pressure to follow a certain checklist in order to be considered “successful.” Pressure to fit in and be accepted. And pressure to quit when your canvas gets messy.

Like a first-grader, I’ve wanted to wad up my mistakes and throw them across the room at times, only to find that I can’t. Because you can’t wad up your life. And you can’t wad up your canvas.

But you can learn from what you’ve done and what you’ve been through. You can keep painting. And you can keep re-painting. Over and over again. If you do this, you’ll eventually come up with one very valuable, unique piece. One that was created using your gifts and talents and knowledge and experience, not someone else’s.

That, my friends, is what I call success.

You see, your canvas may be messy, but at least you can say it’s authentic. Genuine. A valuable, one-of-a-kind creation based on you doing you.

And no matter what anyone says or thinks, this makes it truly beautiful.

So flaunt your messy canvas, friends.

Show the world who you really are. Teach us what we can learn based on your own imperfectly unique journey. 

Because anything less is just an imitation. 

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Holli Fawcett Clayton
I’m Holli Fawcett Clayton, creator of Courageous & Connected, a website about human connection and the ways we can find it.
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