To Become Great, One Must Begin

The Starry Night.
Can you name the artist of these famous paintings?
The notoriety of this artist is well documented, from the fast-paced nature of his work, to his bouts with mental illness, which prompted him to not only slice off an ear, but ultimately commit suicide.
While not recognized as such during his career, today Vincent Van Gogh is heralded as an icon of art—a man noted for his distinct use of color and brush strokes to create worlds on canvas provoking imagination.
Can you imagine a world where Van Gogh never became a painter?
The trajectory of Van Gogh’s early life shows the plausibility of that possibility.
Van Gogh left school before graduating, secured a job at his uncle’s art dealership, only to shortly thereafter be fired during a bout of depression for telling “. . . customers not to buy the ‘worthless art.’”
Let down by his perceived vanity of the art industry, Van Gogh let go of his possessions and became a preacher. Struggling to build a ministry, he moved to a poor mining town in Belgium hoping to build a congregation. Once again he failed, as church leaders found him too zealous and did not renew his contract.
Put yourself in Van Gogh’s shoes. You are 26-years-old. You have been fired from not one, but two jobs. You have tried your hand in a number of other industries. You have no possessions to your name. You are far away from your family.
Sometimes, the point that seems like the end, is really the beginning.
In 2016, back in the pre-global pandemic days when travel was possible, I traveled to Amsterdam. There, I spent a life-changing day at the Van Gogh Museum. I intently wandered the staircase through the museum, my eyes first meeting Van Gogh’s earliest works, then ascending higher to witness not only his brilliant use of color, but the tragedy of his genius.
Before traveling up that staircase, I only knew the basics of Van Gogh’s life. I heard he cut off his ear in a lover’s quarrel and my eyes recognized his bold, eye-popping paintings of landscapes and portraits.  
But, it was on that rounded staircase in a museum in Amsterdam that I learned that before there was The Starry NightIrises or even a self-portrait, there was the beginning.
And for Van Gogh, the beginning was rough, uncertain and enough for most people to give up.
Yet, amidst his turmoil, pain and uncertainty, someone unveiled to him where the true potential for his life existed.
That someone was his brother. Van Gogh and his younger brother, Theo, consistently corresponded via letter. In many of the letters, Van Gogh enclosed sketches of scenes or people he encountered. When Theo, who financially supported Van Gogh during his ministry, learned that his brother’s contract wasn’t renewed, he suggested that Van Gogh pivot his focus to becoming an artist.
Imagine how different the world would look if Theo Van Gogh didn’t make that recommendation.
Imagine how different the world would look if Vincent Van Gogh didn’t accept that recommendation.
Obviously, Van Gogh’s life was rife with unpleasantness and despair, but great guidance exists in his artistic career for those looking to find their way.

  1. Go to where your heart and mind wander. Although Van Gogh grew displeased with the commercial art industry, from all accounts, he enjoyed drawing and painting from a young age. You may be dissatisfied with corporate life. But what activities do you engage in through work that bring you pleasure? Are there any you can spin off into your own endeavor?
  2. Understand “failure” as a redirection. Fired twice before age 26, Van Gogh could have easily believed there was no purpose for his life. A unique characteristic binds some of the world’s most successful people: They have been fired. Stop thinking of being fired as a testament to your ability in the workforce. Rather, take it as a sign of redirection. Examine the day-to-day of the position you were released from to assess what about it was not fit for you. How will you prevent encountering similar situations in future work?
  3. Just begin. Very rarely does one achieve success at the outset of an endeavor. Yet, one cannot attain success if they never begin the endeavor. Take a look at some of Van Gogh’s earliest works. They are starkly different than The Starry Night, Irises and his self-portrait. The colors are drab, the subjects are dull, and the brushstrokes are nondescript. Nonetheless, Van Gogh was an artist during this time, merely because he began painting. To become whatever it is you want to become, you must begin, even if you aren’t skilled, talented or developed in the craft.  
  4. Commit to evolving. Van Gogh painted over 900 paintings, yet the works the world is most familiar with were created in a burst of expression fueled most likely by bouts with mental illness between 1888 and 1890. Between 1885’s The Potato Eaters and 1889’s The Starry Night, Van Gogh’s use of color, subjects and brushstrokes dramatically changes. Looking at the two paintings is like looking at works from two different artists. It is in his late works that Van Gogh left behind perhaps his best lesson: Greatness emerges through evolution. Who you are or how you engage in your career today does not have to be who you are or what you do in it tomorrow. To evolve, Van Gogh relocated to the more brightly lit south of France, studied under more developed artists and investigated the works of the Impressionists. What steps can you take to evolve in your own vocation? Where can you go to seek inspiration? From whom can you learn? What can you research?

As you move through the week, consider this lesson from Van Gogh: To become great, one must first begin, and then continuously evolve.

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