Feeling Our Way

Turn in the direction of the skid.

Paint by Numbers

Expert clinicians, like artists, feel their way instead of following rules.

If you want to make a painting, you can buy a “paint by numbers” kit. A page or canvas has the design drawn on it in numbered irregular shapes that, once filled in with the appropriate colors, produces the work on the cover of the box.

It’s like art. You hang it on your wall. I don’t know whether you are expected to tell visitors that the drawing and plan were done by someone else, or whether you are expected to pass it off as entirely original.

When the recent exhibit, Becoming Van Gogh, went up at the Denver Art Museum, I was delighted to see what a bad painter Van Gogh was for the first few years. He began by copying drawings of the sort you might see in the back of a comic book—send in your rendition and ten bucks and we’ll tell you if you have talent. Then he copied existing paintings, and then he did some of his own. Without exception, he stank. But he knew he stank and he wanted to get better.

A paint by numbers kit allows you to produce something better right away. It also creates a cap on how good you’ll ever get. It’s the difference between defining self-esteem as the things we say to ourselves (or are said to us by others) and defining it (with B.F. Skinner) as the feeling you get when you have skills.

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Would you rather snap your fingers and become instantly and magically expert at whatever your goal is or work hard for ten years to reach the same skill level? Aside from meaningfulness, the journey versus the destination, and ownership of ability, only those who choose the latter will keep getting better. Those who choose the former will spend their time snapping their fingers instead of reading, experimenting, and seeking feedback.

I went to hear a painter named John Roy talk about his work just after he had gotten his first computer. His pictures were pointilistic, a series of small squares colored in such a way that when you stepped back from them, you could see an image (usually a cow as I recall). John had programmed his computer to dictate the hue for each dot on the canvas (a more complicated business then; now your paint program can probably do this easily). After the lecture, I raised my hand and asked, “What do you do if the computer tells you to paint the square a color that doesn’t look right to you?” John said, “Oh, then I paint it the right color.”

That’s not just an artist talking. That’s also the way scientists, builders, and gardeners talk. That’s the difference between an expert and a technician, between psychotherapy and an empirically supported treatment.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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