Jul 15, 2023 16 min read

If Vincent van Gogh Was Your Career Coach

If Vincent van Gogh Was Your Career Coach
Dr Paul Gachet by Vincent van Gogh via Wikimedia Commons

Most of us have heard of Vincent van Gogh the artist but not many are aware that he was an equally prolific writer. The most well known are his letters to his brother Theo, and they are a treasure trove of wisdom on art, life, work, and everything in between.

This made me think — if you were to “consult” Van Gogh about your career, what might he have told you? We can only speculate, but there are plenty of clues. Below is a collection of quotes from his writings, followed by my commentary as it applies to careers.

The caricature of Van Gogh is the troubled genius. But going through his letters, it becomes obvious he knew a lot more about mental well-being and “success” than many of us today, some 150 years later. His lines often jump out of the page and grip you. Coming from anyone else, these might sound like empty motivational ra-ra-ra. But from his pen, it packs a punch.

But you will ask: What is your definite aim?

That aim becomes more definite, will stand out slowly and surely, just as the rough draft becomes a sketch, and the sketch becomes a picture, little by little, by working seriously on it, by pondering over the idea, vague at first, over the thought that was fleeting and passing, till it gets fixed.

It’s never easy

I have a dirty and difficult occupation, painting, and if I weren’t as I am I wouldn’t paint.
It is no easier, I’m convinced, to make a good painting than to find a diamond or a pearl.
Art is jealous and demands all our time, all our strength.
Possible that these great geniuses are no more than crazies, and that to have faith and boundless admiration for them you’d have to be a crazy too. That may well be — I would prefer my madness to other people’s wisdom.
Through working hard, old chap, I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t got it yet, but I’m hunting it and fighting for it …
What I want and set as my goal is damned difficult, and yet I don’t believe I’m aiming too high…

When observing a painting by Van Gogh in the sterile environment of a museum, it’s easy to forget the messiness, and the ups and downs of the creative process. It’s natural to assume it came easily to him.

Most folks are unaware that he started relatively late, after fumbling at multiple careers, at the age of 27. More importantly, a bulk of the paintings that he’s famous for happened right towards the very end before his death, when he made giant leaps in style and productivity. Much of the time leading up to that productive spurt was spent in learning his craft and copying other renowned artists.

Even the best have to work at it and look for it. And no one’s good on day one, not even the so-called genius.

A critical mistake we make is to envision ambitious outcomes and goals without clearly understanding what it will actually take to get there. It’s not necessarily the outcome that’s hard, but instead maintaining the mundane day-to-day grind of getting there.

I say it again — work against indifference — perseverance isn’t easy — but things that are easy mean little.

This explains why money alone never cuts it. Without the element of challenge, meaning or purpose, we are not engaged. And if Van Gogh had to remind himself of it, let’s not beat ourselves up for doubting every once in a while.

Getting ground out

I feel with all my power that the history of man is like that of wheat: if one is not planted in the earth to flourish, come what may, one will be ground up for bread.

Are we going to get ground out by the system, or are we going to germinate and flourish? Van Gogh was probably talking about a life “by design” vs “by default”. It takes a lot more effort to do it intentionally. But are we ok with the default?

There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as between an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and was a good lamp, but now it is shedding light, too, and that is its real function.

Ambition for preeminence is a jealous lover

Painting and fucking a lot aren’t compatible; it weakens the brain, and that’s what’s really damned annoying.
You see what I’ve found, my work, and you also see what I haven’t found, everything else that’s part of life.
Art is jealous and demands all our time, all our strength.
It always comes back at times, in the midst of the artistic life, a yearning for — real life — ideal and not attainable.

You want to be successful at work, but just not at the price of everything else. When we think of Olympic athletes, dedication over long periods of time is a given. Why do we expect it to be any different for the corporate climb, or your entrepreneurial venture?

It is no more reasonable to expect a great leader to be a “balanced” person with a “normal” private life than it is to expect such a thing of a great creative artist, athlete, or scientist. Ambition for preeminence is a jealous lover. It will not share and does not forgive dalliance.

— James March, Thierry Weill in On Leadership

Work-life balance is a misleading dichotomy — it’s the same you who’s everywhere. Balancing becomes an issue when one of them (work/life) is “energy-draining”. And it becomes so when we are disengaged, or out of alignment.

Engaging vigorously with life and work is “net energy-producing”. When both are working well, we don’t have to think about balancing them. One feeds on the other.

But success in one domain doesn’t necessarily mean fulfillment in others either. Often, balance and average performance in multiple areas is actually harder than outstanding success in one domain. Success in one typically comes at the price of below-average performance in others. It simply cannot be any other way.

Even those who seem to have pulled off the impossible, do so only over the long term. They go through long stretches where everything else was out of balance to get that one thing right.

The basics for a sustained career

Almost no one knows that the secret of beautiful work is to a large extent good faith and sincere feeling.

Many a frustrated career happens because of loss of faith and a lack of sincerity — loss of faith in where it’s leading, and a lack of sincerity that comes from treating it as simply a paycheck. The mistake is to assume that no one sees it. It’s too obvious. More importantly, we are cheating ourselves.

The trick is in understanding that it’s an active effort on our part, rather than a passive reaction to external circumstances. It’s what we make of it. There’s not necessarily an inspirational job, but rather our approach that makes it so. Of course, this is influenced by alignment with our values, aspirations, and how we are wired. But the onus still remains on us.

There’s no end, only evolving

I’m an artist — which I won’t take back, because those words naturally imply always seeking without ever fully finding.

Success, knowledge, and mastery are asymptotical — the more you get closer to it, the more there’s to it. It’s the same with careers — there’s no end point, only an evolution towards an ideal which by definition can’t be reached. But instead of being a deterrent, it can be a spur for greater things.

Excellence is mundane, and small

So then my brush goes between my fingers as if it were a bow on the violin and absolutely for my pleasure.
For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.

You have to find aspects of your work that are enjoyable for their own sake rather than a means to an end. Otherwise, it’s hard to sustain peak performance over long stretches. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that not everything you do will be so.

All work, even Van Gogh’s, has aspects of drudgery. It’s what David Brooks calls “digging the damn ditch”. The pros are good at doing the mundane things long enough. It’s what Daniel Chambliss called “the mundanity of excellence”.

What we get to see is the final product that's the culmination of a long sequence of small wins strung together into that one final masterpiece or the masterful performance.

Doing, not wishing

Hoping for better times mustn’t be a feeling but a doing something in the present.
I regard love — as I do friendship — not only as a feeling but chiefly as an action …
Loving is in practice not only eating strawberries.

Modern culture prioritizes feelings, and rightfully so. Same for mindset. Research indicates that recognizing feelings and having a growth mindset can be pivotal for success. However, this often goes to one extreme — when having the right feelings and “being in the right mindset” become a necessary condition for taking action.

But the opposite is equally true — action fixes mindset and feelings as well. In all the hoopla about mindset, actions seem to be forgotten. You don’t have to wait for the “right” mindset, or spend time “fixing” it.

It’s the same for decisions. Deciding is as much about acting as it is about thinking. Until the very moment we take action, we haven’t really decided. In uncertain scenarios, often any imperfect action is better than perfect inaction.

Embracing anxiety

You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. … Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares.

The equivalent of a blank canvas in careers is that new project, new role, or the new field, that pushes you to the limits. But there's no guarantee you will succeed. It’s what stops many from going to the next level. It’s scary for sure. What’s even scarier is looking back and regretting not having taken those chances.

Oh, the beautiful sun down here in high summer; it beats down on your head and I have no doubt at all that it drives you crazy. Now being that way already, all I do is enjoy it.
To know how to suffer without complaining, that’s the only practical thing, that’s the great skill, the lesson to learn, the solution to life’s problem.

Many of our struggles stem from not willing to “stay with” the anxiety. If something/someone makes us uncomfortable, we flee. It’s often fruitful to stay with the feeling and experience it fully. This doesn’t mean it's comfortable, or that it goes away. Rather, it means you are engaging, rather than avoiding or trying to eliminate anxiety.

Money is cheap

In my view I’m often very rich, not in money, but rich […] because I’ve found my work — have something which I live for heart and soul and which gives inspiration and meaning too life.

Van Gogh’s paintings fetch millions today. But when he died, he had sold just one painting in his entire life. He wasn’t “successful” by today’s standards, but one thing we cannot accuse him is of being miserable at work.

To state a cliché, life is too short to be miserable. Money typically dominates our decision-making criteria when it comes to careers. This makes us myopic and blind to other equally valid and more important criteria like energy, time, and identity. Having a range of frameworks to think differently about careers can be helpful.

Everyone needs the money though

But the things needed for painting are like those of a ruinous mistress; you can do nothing without money, and you never have enough of it.

You hate your job, and you're in it only for the money. Nothing wrong with this, as long as you use that money to move things forward. It’s what Robert Greene calls “alive time vs. dead time”. To build a side venture, or a new career, you will need time and money. Your current role can help you transition. Use it as fuel and runway for your next endeavor.

Take action, any action

Life is the same as drawing: sometimes one has to act quickly and resolutely, tackle things with willpower, take care that broad outlines appear with lightning speed. It’s no use hesitating or doubting…
Look, a canvas that i cover is worth more than a blank canvas…
But even as we stray we sometimes find the track anyway, and there’s something good in all movement.
If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.

When operating in complexity — unknown outcomes and unclear options — bold but imperfect action is often better than cautious and perfect inaction. Inertia is energy number one when we are stagnating, and action is the antidote even when suboptimal.

Too many of us wait for the perfect time or the perfect opportunity to get started. It’s not coming. Take your shot with what you have, and with what you can see, for now.

Even if one sometimes feels a sort of decline, the point is nevertheless to revive and have courage, even though things don’t turn out as one first intends.

Things rarely turn out as initially planned. Pushing through is the point. Jeff Bezos puts it this way: “The whole point of moving things forward is that you run into problems, failures, things that don’t work." Work and careers require a specific kind of courage that’s different from what Hollywood typically portrays.

Holding on to the present and not letting it pass by without managing to get something out of it — now that’s what I believe duty is.

Van Gogh was talking about making the most of the limited time we all have. He was probably more aware of the fleeting nature of our existence than anyone else. He’s also hinting at making some forward progress, even producing small artifacts of your work, daily.

Master the nuances of language and communication

There are so many people … who imagine that words are nothing. On the contrary, don’t you think, it’s as interesting and as difficult to say a thing well as to paint a thing.

There’s the art of lines and colors, but there’s the art of words that will last just the same.

Because we live, breathe and think through language, it’s invisible to us and we take it for granted. But there are entire dimensions of language that go unnoticed. Pay attention to language, and how it’s an indelible part of effective leadership and careers.

You say “I don’t understand you”. Well, that I certainly believe, because writing is actually an awful way to explain things to each other.

Writing effective reports and emails is only one aspect of good communication. You have to get equally good at the art of one-on-one conversations. They are the building blocks of organizational life

Cross pollinate

Arranging colors in a painting to make them shimmer and stand out through their contrasts, that’s something like arranging jewels or designing costumes.
It’s not good to know only one thing; it stultifies one. One shouldn’t rest until one also knows the opposite.

Domain knowledge is important, but to create breakthroughs, you’ll have to draw upon knowledge outside your core area. Many innovations happen at the intersection of adjacent domains, or where ideas from one domain are applied in a new one. Look for inspirations and parallels from outside your area of expertise.

Become a skilled observer

The grass trodden down at the side of a road looks tired and dusty like the inhabitants of a poor quarter…

A characteristic trait of great artists and writers is their ability to pay attention to the smallest of details; things that often look mundane to the lay observer. They are masters of paying attention to their own attention. Most organizations, and the people in them, can be understood if you observe closely, long enough.

Find things beautiful as much as you can, most people find too little beautiful.
Yet if one has a need for something great, something infinite,… one needn’t look far.

Beauty is literally in the eyes of the beholder. More importantly, it’s an active approach rather than a passive reaction. This applies equally to work.

The topics that Van Gogh chose to depict weren’t inherently extraordinary. His depiction of them were. Along the same lines, your work/project might not be inherently interesting, but your interest in it will make it so. In fact, if you can make a “dirty” project successful, that will get you noticed more.

Stay naive

Even in the most cultured circles and the best surroundings and circumstances, one should retain something of the original nature of a Robinson Crusoe or a savage.

Retain your original naiveté, or the Zen idea of beginner's mind. That’s the only way to reach the next level, without getting burnt out or jaded in the process. It’s easy for knowledge and sophistication to slowly turn into cynicism.

Get in the trenches

Come on, old chap, come and paint with me on the heath, in the potato field, come and walk with me behind the plough and the shepherd — come and stare into the fire with me — just let the storm that blows across the heath blow through you.

In any endeavor, there are aspects of the work that don’t look fun at first, and that require another level of commitment. But these are also activities that are rich and rewarding, and that can help you stand out. They are the very things we know we should be doing, but are resisting it for various reasons. And usually that’s where most of our growth lies.

From a management perspective, this can be what Tom Peters calls MBWA – managing by wandering around. Not easy, but well worth the effort.

Always be learning

I have more or less irresistible passion for books, and I have a need continually to educated myself, to study, if you like, precisely as I need to eat my bread.

Van Gogh is often the poster child for the notion of genius. In his short 10 years as an artist, he single-handedly changed the art scene, and today he’s one of the most well known. So, it’s easy to call him a genius. But that misses an important aspect of his work — he was constantly learning and practicing his craft, perhaps more so than most.

I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.

Writing more than 100 years after Van Gogh, MIT organizational learning pioneer Donald Schon captured this fundamental paradox of learning: real learning means starting to do what we don't know yet.

Your raison d’être

I feel a power in me that I must develop, a fire that I may not put out but must fan, although I don’t know to what outcome it will lead me.

If Van Gogh had waited for certainty or guarantees, we might not have seen any of his iconic paintings. Keep ignoring your fire long enough, and it will putter out. Ambitions have expiration dates. Don’t wait until retirement, or until you have enough time or money.

I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it!

Most of us have an inkling, or slight hints over time, about what we might be good at. Often this is too subtle, and can be lost if not nurtured. It’s more like faint music in the background; one that we are good at drowning out.

I’m concerned with the world only in that I have a certain obligation and duty, as it were… to leave a certain souvenir in the form of drawings or paintings in gratitude.

Legacy is something people start thinking about too late. But the sooner you start, the better. And this also includes who you are becoming. The person you become is as much a legacy of your actions, as is what you are building and creating.

The conscience is a man’s compass, and although the needle deviates sometimes…, one must nevertheless do one’s best to set one’s course by it.

The better aligned you are with your internal compass, the easier it is to play the long game. Misalignment is hard to sustain, especially when performing at the highest levels.

I know too well what aim I have in view, I’m too absolutely and utterly convinced that I am, after all, on the right path — when I want to paint what I feel and feel what I paint — to worry too much about what people say of me.

When you stand up, people will “talk” but this is not a negative indicator. If anything, it’s a positive indicator. Only the critic gets to sit in the background and watch. Doing anything worthwhile requires jumping into the arena.

Friendships and networks

The best consolation, if not the only remedy, is, it still seems to me, profound friendships, even if these have the disadvantage for anchoring us in life more solidly than may appear desirable to us in the days of great suffering.

Workplace friends are often more critical to “retention” than salary and benefits. They act as “shock absorbers” in an otherwise stressful, demanding role.

Mistakes and failure

Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.
It’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious.

Coming from anyone else, these lines can sound cliched and trite. But when Van Gogh says it, it adds a different dimension. His paintings fetch millions of dollars today. But when he died at the young age of 37, he’d sold only one painting in his entire career as an artist.

Everyone makes mistakes. But mistakes are forgotten. What stays are the success markers. Meanwhile, we are very intimate with, and never forget, all of our mistakes. Don’t compare your down moments with someone else’s perfection.

The biggest mistake in careers is to actively avoid making them. Because it also means you are not pushing yourself to the next level.

What molting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortunate, hard times, for us human beings.

Andy Grove called these inflection points in careers. Whether it’s being passed up for a promotion or even a lay-off, these are valuable moments to reassess, reevaluate, regroup, and reengage. Often, the perspectives that these pivotal moments afford, are unavailable without the trying circumstances.

Means based action

… we have to cut our coat according to our cloth, although it’s a great shame that there isn’t a little more cloth.

Means-based action is different from actions based on idealistic goals. It’s what Saras Saraswathy calls effectuation — actions and goals that emerge from available means. This includes not just resources, but also your skills and what you are good at.

What makes you unique?

Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully.
But the painter of the future is a colorist such as there hasn’t been before.

Until Van Gogh came along, the use of color in art was muted. He was one of the first to use extra bright colors and to use them prolifically. From the perspective of careers, pay attention to your own strengths and what appeals to you, rather than trying to follow someone else’s formula. What appeals to you? What makes you stand out from the crowd, and how can you develop it further?

Embrace the puzzle

Life in the abstract is already a riddle, reality turns it into a riddle within a riddle.
Life’s ‘an odd thing’, brother.

Work and careers are, even more so, a riddle — trying to find a good match between what we are suited for, and what our work entails. I used to get frustrated about why careers have to be so hard to figure out. Over time, I realized, that figuring it out is in fact the game.

It’s a lifelong process, and one that changes as we age, mature, and learn more about ourselves. The mistake is to get frustrated, and quit looking. Looking and experimenting is the name of the game until we hit the sweet spot.

And then we begin again.

How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be?

Liked this article? You will dig my newsletter: The Leading Sapiens Weekly. It's free and every edition covers essential frameworks on leadership, careers, and organizations in bite sized form.


  1. Life According to Vincent published by the Van Gogh museum
  2. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
  3. Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters by Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten
  4. Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_van_Gogh
  5. Online repository of all his letters: https://vangoghletters.org/vg/
Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
Table of Contents
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Leading Sapiens.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.