Van Gogh’s Tenacity

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Van Gogh: self portrait
Self Portrait (1887) by Vincent van Gogh, image courtesy David Flam

Vincent van Gogh spent most of his life destitute. The one woman he loved rejected him. Almost everyone who saw his paintings found very little value in them. He would often trade those very paintings to sympathetic familes in Holland and in France in exchange for a night or two sleeping in their barn and a meal or two (yes, paintings worth tens of millions of dollars today).

In fact, the only reason he had the materials with which to paint at all was due to his brother Theo, who wasn’t exactly well off himself but who always found a way to send his brother a bit of money for more paint supplies.

The letters that Vincent van Gogh shared with his brother make for some stunning reading. They depict a person struggling deeply with self doubt. They depict a man struggling with physical and mental ailments. They also depict a person with passion and drive and a sense that he was doing the right thing, even if the people around him didn’t believe in him.

Why am I mentioning his life story here? I think there are several vital lessons that anyone can take away from it.

Don’t make choices just to please other people. Don’t buy stuff just because other people want you to buy stuff. Don’t spend money just because other people want you to spend money. Let them spend their own money if they want.

Make your own decisions and don’t feel bad about making a different choice than the crowd around you. If you find that your values are deviating from that crowd, don’t be afraid to start seeking new people to spend your time with, or accept that you’re not going to be in sync with your existing crowd on everything and just maximize what you do have in common.

Life is a long haul. The people that succeed are the people that keep going and going and going towards their goal or towards whatever drives them. If you want to find financial success, you need to be willing to accept that it won’t happen tomorrow or the day after that.

For most people’s financial situations, it will take years to find real success. The same is true for career situations, entrepreneurial situations, and even relationship situations. A Band-Aid quick fix solution is rarely the one that will build long term success.

Doubting yourself is normal. Everyone doubts themselves. Even people who seem extremely confident are often just wearing a public face. There will be times where you feel as though you’re not doing the right thing.

When you feel that way, return to the things that caused you to choose this path in the first place. For me, it’s a small handful of personal finance books. For you, it could be anything. Go back to the basics and you’ll begin to feel the confidence and motivation again.

You don’t need lots of material stuff to have a successful life. Yes, van Gogh’s example is an extreme one, but there’s still something to be learned there. He didn’t live a life filled with possessions, yet he lived a life that changed the world. Why do you need a lot of possessions?

Challenge yourself to live with fewer possessions rather than more possessions. Owning things not only drains your money, but it drains your time and spreads out your focus.

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20 thoughts on “Van Gogh’s Tenacity

  1. Ok, so I kind of get what you’re saying here.

    But Van Gogh was a mentally ill man who committed suicide at a very young age (37, according to Wikipedia). Perhaps we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from his difficult and lonely life.

  2. Please explain how Van Gogh’s life changed the world. His paintings may be pleasing to the eye or challenging to the spirit but he hardly affected day-to-day lives as did Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison or Gavrilo Princip.

  3. Actually there is a more recent theory that Van Gogh did not commit suicide, but that he was accidentally shot by a couple kids horsing around with a gun. It is believed that he didn’t want these kids prosecuted, so he allowed people to think he shot himself.

    But I agree that Van Gogh should not be regarded as a model for success in life. He didn’t support himself, much less a family. He was singularly devoted to painting, which is why his output was so great, which has a lot to do with why he is now recognized as important. He would not have become a big deal had he done only ten paintings.

  4. “He didn’t live a life filled with possessions, yet he lived a life that changed the world. Why do you need a lot of possessions?
    Challenge yourself to live with fewer possessions rather than more possessions.”

    Do you like the word “possessions”?

  5. I cannot, though I have tried very hard, think of any way at all in which Charles Darwin has affected my day-to-day life. The same is true of Gavrilo Princip, whom I can go for months or even years at a time without considering. True, had it not been for Thomas Edison I might have had to light a candle when I came home this evening instead of turning on the light. But it is probable that someone else would have pinched Joseph Swan’s idea if Edison hadn’t pinched it first.

  6. How about instead of “fewer” possession as if it’s somehow more virtuous than many, we live with exactly the “right” number of possessions, all of which bring regular value to our lives.

    Minimalism is so yesterday…

  7. What a bunch of snarky comments. Why do you bother to read this blog if all you want to do is pick it apart? Why don’t you take that time and energy and go accomplish something yourselves. Van Gogh was single-minded in the way that many highly intelligent and creative people are. The fact that he developed mental illness later in his life doesn’t negate the contributions he made to the art world-or anyone who appreciates art. The fact that he stuck to painting because of his intense devotion to it in spite of major hardship is something to be admired, not treated with scorn. You should all be so lucky as to have that kind of passion.

  8. How about this, David:

    Darwin was a pivotal scientist in the development of the theory of evolution, which shapes modern biology and contributes in a massive way to our understanding of medicine and other fields that DO have a direct impact on our every day lives.

  9. Elaine, we’re not arguing the fact that Van Gogh was an important artist nor are we treating his very real challenges scornfully.

    We are, however, pointing out that Van Gogh was a crappy example for the points Trent tried to make in his article. I don’t see the point of romanticizing the life of a mentally-ill man who struggled to function in the real world. Trent uses him as an example of how you can be successful without material possessions, but quite frankly – it’s disrespectful the millions of people who suffer a mental illness to pretend that Van Gogh’s life was a model to emulate.

    There is nothing wrong with pointing that out; the internet is not supposed to be an echo-chamber.

  10. The impacts from the actions of Darwin, Edison and Princip altered the lives of people in the first half of the 20th century. Our lives are altered as well, just as the person discovering a wheel’s usefulness altered all of humankind. These individuals may have built their reputations off the ideas of others but they were the ones who brought those ideas into reality. Because their influences upon the industrialized world were so profound and encompassing, our day-to-day lives would be different had they never existed. With Van Gogh. not so much.

  11. I wouldn’t say Van Gogh had a successful life. Unfortunately with artists, many don’t achieve their greatest success until after they’re dead. Van Gogh had a successful death. I’ll have my success today and feel free to forget me when I’m dead :-).

    For most people’s financial situations, it will take years to find real success. The same is true for career situations, entrepreneurial situations, and even relationship situations. A Band-Aid quick fix solution is rarely the one that will build long term success.

    Can someone explain what the bolded part refers to?

  12. The idea of using Van Gogh as inspiration for a PF post is an intriguing one, certainly. The transition from the extraordinary self portrait at the top of the post to boilerplate PF advice like “Don’t buy stuff just because other people want you to buy stuff” is just too jarring, though.

    I’d give Trent an A- for his ability to identify interesting concepts for his posts, and a D for his ability to write those posts clearly, concisely, and imaginatively.

    @Vanessa: as for the Band-Aid reference, I think he’s simply making a general point about persistence versus quick fixes.

  13. Vanessa- so right! That kind of singular focus is to the detriment of all other aspects for life. It comes down to choosing true “greatness” at one pursuit, vs. balance. Balance favors healthy relationships and reciprocal fulfillment. Dedicating one’s self to a “calling” such as painting can be fulfilling as well, and can result in benefit to society on a larger scale, but it is much more a solo path, and it can take a painful toll on close loved ones. I have always know it is impossible to be both a great mom, and a great painter, at the same time. A great painter is wholly consumed with his/her work, and nothing else matters as much, except perhaps a love affair that is also the muse.

  14. @ #13 kc

    @Vanessa: as for the Band-Aid reference, I think he’s simply making a general point about persistence versus quick fixes.

    What is an example of a quick fix in a career or a relationship?. That’s what I don’t get. I get that he was speaking generally, but his thought doesn’t make sense without examples to illustrate.

  15. “I’d give Trent an A- for his ability to identify interesting concepts for his posts, and a D for his ability to write those posts clearly, concisely, and imaginatively. ”

    Bingo.

    David, what about Louis Pasteur or Joseph Lister?
    No idea if either one of them liked possessions.

  16. “The idea of using Van Gogh as inspiration for a PF post is an intriguing one, certainly. The transition from the extraordinary self portrait at the top of the post to boilerplate PF advice like “Don’t buy stuff just because other people want you to buy stuff” is just too jarring, though.”

    Agreed, and there are so many posts like this. Just about every intriguing concept for a post gets twisted into a confirmation of what Trent already believes.

    It would be nice to see a post where Trent talks about actually learning something new. But I’m not holding my breath.

  17. While I do understand using Van Gogh for an inspiration to be persistent, follow our dreams, etc., I would not say that he led a life worthy of inspiration in any other way! He was destitute, not able to support himself without financial help from his brother, deeply troubled, and mentally ill. Not such a good role model!

  18. This is just what I needed today! I’m actually struggling to start a career as an artist from scratch, and doubt is a huge issue. Thanks for posting this, Trent.

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