Creativity by Synthesis (Combining Ideas): A Case Study on the Darwin & Mendel Theorems in Biology

One of the fascinating aspects of invention is tracking the continuity of ideas across an arc of time and tracing the progression of ideas over time. My previous article examined how blending antecedent ideas to form new ones led to the invention of the Gutenberg’s press, the rotary steam engine, and the Wright Brothers‘ first powered flight. In this article, we will explore a related mental model for creativity.

A fundamental component of creative thinking is combining whole ideas (or just certain elements of ideas) to create a new concept. When we synthesize—i.e. fuse ideas to forge new ones—we mirror the footsteps of some of humankind’s most imaginative breakthroughs.

James Maxwell‘s work on electromagnetic radiation developed from the synthesis of seemingly unrelated concepts such as electricity, magnetism, light, and motion. His theory of electromagnetism was one of the most significant discoveries of the nineteenth century. Albert Einstein described Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism as “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

Even more profoundly, Darwin and Mendel’s work exemplifies the most groundbreaking synthesis of ideas. Combined more than four decades after their deaths, their ideas shaped the foundation of life sciences, as we know it. Allow me to elaborate.

Theory of the Descent of Man - Darwin's Theories of Evolution

Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Charles Darwin The word “evolution” was first used in English as early as 1647. Long before that, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaximander (611–546 B.C.E) speculated that humans must have evolved from an animal and that this evolution must have sprung from the sea. By the end of the 18th century, naturalists conjectured that different life forms develop progressively from more primitive forms. They also hypothesized that all life forms were interrelated. Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802,) Charles Darwin’s grandfather and a natural philosopher and physiologist, as well as the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) argued along those lines. However, most of their thoughts on evolution and the relatedness of all life forms were purely speculative.

'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin (ISBN 0451529065) Darwin’s most notable scientific contribution was his vast body of evidence supporting the aforementioned hypotheses. Even more significantly, Darwin identified natural selection as the mechanism that determines evolutionary change. In his seminal treatise, “Origin of Species” (1859,) Darwin distilled the theory of evolution through two foundational concepts:

  1. In any ecosystem, individuals of the same species are likely to differ in their measurable characteristics. Such variations tend to be inherited.
  2. Living beings—plants and animals—reproduce more quickly than nature can impart the resources for their survival. Individuals of a species must therefore compete in order to live and reproduce in a competitive ecosystem.

Charles Darwin’s work on evolution was really a synthesis of concepts from comparative anatomy, paleontology, geology, geography, and animal breeding.

Advancing his theories further, in “The Descent of Man” (1871,) Darwin described humans as an outcome of evolution. Humans have the same general anatomical and physiological principles as animals and are in fact an advanced animal form whose superior traits are a consequence of evolutionary progression. Darwin hypothesized that humans share a common ancestry with animals, more specifically evolving from primates.

The Big Gap in Darwin’s Theory: Lack of an Explanation for Heredity

'The Descent Of Man' by Charles Darwin (ISBN 1463645961) In the introduction to The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

Darwin’s theories about the evolution of humankind created an instant uproar among advocates of Christian theology and its concept of a wise, benevolent, and omnipotent Creator as laid out in the Book of Genesis. Since then, few scientific theories have been as hotly debated among nonscientists as evolution and its opponent, creationism (and recently, intelligent design.)

After The Descent of Man, it was more than a decade before Darwin’s work came to be scientifically established. Darwin’s work remained deficient—if natural selection was to have lasting effects, these advances had to be conserved and passed on from one generation to the next. He agreed with scientists who argued that his evolutionary theory failed to explain how variations are transmitted from parents to their offspring.

Mendelian Inheritance in Andalusian Fowls - Cross-breeding Experiments by Gregor Mendel

Cross-breeding Experiments by Gregor Mendel: Evidence of Heredity

Gregor Mendel Between 1856 and 1863, independent of Charles Darwin (1809–1882,) Moravian monk Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) conducted extensive pea plant breeding experiments in his monastery’s garden. He systematically studied what farmers had known for centuries: that crossbreeding animals and plants creates “hybrid” offspring with desirable traits. Based on his pea plant experiments, Mendel laid the foundational rules of genetic inheritance and heredity.

Synthesis of Darwin and Mendel’s Work as the Foundation of Life Sciences

It was not until the 1930s, long after both Darwin and Mendel’s deaths, that biologists started to study Mendel’s work on heredity in conjunction with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Scientists were then able to understand how variation of characteristics is passed on to new generations and how evolution is a process of descent with modification. Mendel’s laws provided justification of inheritance, thereby completing Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Subsequently, Darwin’s theory became the basic mechanism of evolution—evolutionary genetics was established as biology’s central theorem and the bedrock concept of all life sciences. From that point on, Darwin became one of the most influential persons in human history.

Scientists continue to fine-tune humankind’s understanding of evolutionary biology as new evidence and fresh insights pour in from biochemistry, genetics, archaeology, neuroscience, and various other disciplines.

Inspirational Quotations #575

The friend within the man is that part of him which belongs to you and opens to you a door which never, perhaps, is opened to another. Such a friend is true, and all he says is true; and he loves you even if he hates you in other mansions of his heart.
Antoine De Saint-Exupery

It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.
Winston Churchill

Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary.
Mark Twain

Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heart-ache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, to discover what is already there.
Henry Miller

A leader, once convinced that a particular course of action is the right one, must be undaunted when the going gets tough.
Ronald Reagan

No matter how reclusive we tend to be, we picture the after-life as a community of souls. It is one thing to seek privacy in this life; it is another to face eternity alone.
Robert Brault

Seven Ways to Motivate Yourself

Seven Ways to Motivate Yourself

Most people often know what they should do, but can’t seem to make themselves follow through. Here are seven quick and easy ways that might help you get motivated.

  1. Be decisive. Avoid analysis paralysis. The best way to get unstuck is to start somewhere. Don’t wait for the right answer and the golden path to present themselves. Focus on action, which will get you started and build momentum. You can adjust your course of action later. See my previous article: “When in Doubt, Do.”
  2. Avoid the desire to prove yourself. The need to prove yourself to others can be off-putting because you may foresee them disapproving of your work. Let go of the need to prove yourself to everyone else, and free yourself to accomplish what matters most to you. Overcome the fear of failure. Consider low-risk actions.
  3. Develop a Plan B. The most successful people are those who acknowledge when their current plans aren’t working and switch to Plan B.
  4. Accelerate. If things seem under control, you are probably not approaching your goal quickly enough.
  5. If you have made mistakes, don’t be shackled by regret. Things will eventually work out. If you are chained up by a worrisome activity and can’t seem to make progress, switch to another productive activity. Try my ’10-minute Dash’ technique to beat procrastination.
  6. Play favorite scenes in your mind. Envisioning triumph, moments with a loved one or images of playing with a pet have an incredible ability to inspire you.
  7. Try something new and befriend the unfamiliar. Break away from your comfort zone. You will only grow when you let go of discomfort, explore a different path, and try something new.

Inspirational Quotations by Maya Angelou

The Best Inspirational Quotations by Maya Angelou

Today marks the birthday of Maya Angelou (1928-2014.) Born Marguerite Ann Johnson, the renowned African-American author adopted an extraordinary range of roles: she was a poet, memoirist, singer, dancer, playwright, director, actor, and even a civil rights activist.

Through all of these lenses, Angelou inspired generations of fans. She enthusiastically shared the great wisdom she acquired from many hardships, including an abusive childhood, the oppressive 1930s Deep South, and various experiences during her early adulthood.

Angelou famously channeled this hard-won wisdom through writing. Her seven autobiographies, three collections of essays and books of poetry chronicle the African American experience. Here are four must-reads from the late American author and poet:

  • 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' by Maya Angelou (ISBN 0345514408) “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969,) Angelou’s first autobiography, particularly garnered critical acclaim and international recognition. This work tells her life story of suffering and human endurance up until her teenage years and paints a stirring portrait of a young Angelou. Sent away by her parents to live with grandparents, Angelou faces and overcomes racism and deprivation. She is raped by her mother’s lover, who is later murdered. After his death, Angelou withdraws into herself, taking on a nearly mute state for the next 5 years. Later, with a mentor’s guidance, she develops a passion for books and finds her own voice. Throughout the piece, Angelou steadily gains strength of character, transforms into a dignified young woman, and is even appointed as San Francisco’s first African-American and first woman streetcar conductor. At the conclusion of this moving coming-of-age story, Angelou becomes a 16-year-old mother.
  • “And Still I Rise” (1978,) Angelou’s third volume of poetry, contains her iconic titular poem. “Still I Rise” provides rousing commentary on her ancestors’ struggles and expresses hope for a better future. The poem concludes, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave … I rise … I rise … I rise.” In 1994, Nelson Mandela recited this poem at his inauguration as President of South Africa.
  • “The Heart of a Woman” (1981,) Angelou’s fourth autobiographical installment, recounts the years between 1957 and 1962, during which she was politically active in the civil rights movement and travelled the world. The book reflects on the meaning and enormous responsibilities of motherhood as well as Angelou’s relationship with her teenage son, who, at the book’s end, leaves for college.
  • “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993.) In January 1993, at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, Angelou once again made history. She became the second poet, the first African-American, and the first woman to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. Angelou wrote and recited the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” to emphasize unity, social change, and public responsibility.

Inspirational Quotations by Maya Angelou

My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.
Maya Angelou

I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.
Maya Angelou

Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.
Maya Angelou

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.
Maya Angelou

Something made greater by ourselves and in turn that makes us greater.
Maya Angelou

I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me, “I love you.” There is an African saying which is: “Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
Maya Angelou

No sun outlasts its sunset but will rise again and bring the dawn.
Maya Angelou

Live life as if it were created just for you.
Maya Angelou

Courage is the most important of all the virtues … One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
Maya Angelou

No matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.
Maya Angelou

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.
Maya Angelou

The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.
Maya Angelou

We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.
Maya Angelou

The love of the family, the love of the person can heal. It heals the scars left by a larger society. A massive, powerful society.
Maya Angelou

There is a very fine line between loving life and being greedy for it.
Maya Angelou

The desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise and most possible.
Maya Angelou

Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: “I’m with you kid. Let’s go.”
Maya Angelou

Ask For What You Want And Be Prepared To Get It.
Maya Angelou

The most called-upon prerequisite of a friend is an accessible ear.
Maya Angelou

Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.
Maya Angelou

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Maya Angelou

It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.
Maya Angelou

There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.
Maya Angelou

A woman who is convinced that she deserves to accept only the best, challenges herself to give the best. Then she is living phenomenally.
Maya Angelou

If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.
Maya Angelou

You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.
Maya Angelou

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
Maya Angelou

If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die.
Maya Angelou

Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.
Maya Angelou

Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.
Maya Angelou

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.
Maya Angelou

I am overwhelmed by the grace and persistence of my people.
Maya Angelou

Nothing will work unless you do.
Maya Angelou

Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman.
Maya Angelou

We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.
Maya Angelou

Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.
Maya Angelou

Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives.
Maya Angelou

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
Maya Angelou

It is the belief in a power larger than myself and other than myself which allows me to venture into the unknown and even the unknowable.
Maya Angelou

Love is like a virus. It can happen to anybody at any time.
Maya Angelou

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catchers mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back.
Maya Angelou

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.
Maya Angelou

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.
Maya Angelou

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
Maya Angelou

Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.
Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou shared the great wisdom she acquired from many hardships

When an interviewer asked Angelou in 1985 what she’d like to read in her own obituary, Angelou replied, “What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love. By love, I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings.”

“Caged Bird”—A Poem by Maya Angelou

'Conversations with Maya Angelou' by Jeffrey M. Elliot (ISBN 087805362X) Here is a snippet of Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird” from the collection “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?”

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Vincent van Gogh on Living Life with Zeal and Engaging Oneself in Work (They Beat the Odds #1)

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear - Vincent van Gogh

My article earlier this week presented a brief life story of the renowned Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh followed by inspirational quotations chosen from his letters to his brother Theo.

This article will explore his philosophy of work and his sense of devotion, as evidenced by extracts mainly from Vincent’s letters to Theo. I have interspersed fascinating bits of Vincent’s life in hopes that the story of this extraordinary man who achieved so much in the face of adversity may inspire you and, perhaps, elicit further admiration (recommended biography) and even sympathy.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

During most of his adult years, Vincent van Gogh wrote copious letters primarily to his brother Theo. Vincent wrote less frequently to his mother, one of his sisters, friends, and collaborators. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam maintains a comprehensive compilation of his letters. I also recommend “Ever Yours: The Essential Letters”, a fascinating anthology of Vincent’s letters to Theo.

'Ever Yours: The Essential Letters' by Vincent van Gogh (ISBN 0300209479) The accessible correspondence between Vincent and Theo is mostly one-way communication. This is because Theo retained the great majority of Vincent’s letters; but Vincent, owing to neglect, retained just a few of Theo’s replies.

Vincent’s letters offer a profound, soul-searching description of the jagged life of a genius who achieved much in the face of adversity. His letters make a splendid record of his life, work, and philosophy. They have provided the primary source and substance of numerous scholarly studies, particularly by art historians and psychiatrists.

Vincent’s letters reveal the inner workings of his mind and heart like few others have done. His letters were extemporaneous ‘thinking aloud’ journals: he took paper everywhere and scribbled his thoughts spontaneously while he was thinking or creating art. For this reason, Vincent’s letters aren’t easy reads—his thoughts often appear unstructured and abstruse.

Vincent van Gogh on Finding Meaningful Work

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin by Vincent van Gogh Vincent embarked upon his artistic career at the somewhat advanced age of 27. According to biographers, he showed no signs that he was precocious during his childhood. All through youth, Vincent struggled to find his place in the world and held various occupations where he proved deficient. Before resolving to devote his life to art, Vincent wrote,

We’ve talked quite a lot about what we feel to be our duty and how we should arrive at something good, and we rightly came to the conclusion that first of all our goal must be to find a certain position and a profession to which we can devote ourselves entirely.

And I think that we also agreed on this point, namely that one must pay special attention to the end, and that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.

He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune.

Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good, and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.

If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but 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. [Letter to Theo, April 1878]

Vincent van Gogh’s Concept of Work and Idea of Art

Core to Vincent’s philosophy was his belief that the concept for a work must precede the execution of the work. At the beginning of his tenure as an artist, Vincent outlined his idea of art,

Art is man added to nature … nature, reality, truth, but with a significance, a conception, a character, which the artist brings out in it, and to which he gives expression … which he disentangles, sets free and interprets. [Letter to Theo, June 1879]

Vincent van Gogh on the Primacy of Work

The tragic circumstances of Vincent’s life allowed him to pursue his calling for just 11 years, the time required by most artists to master their technique fully. During those 11 years, Vincent experimented and practiced art with a steady sense of purpose. He continued to paint right up until his fateful suicide. On deeming one’s work as one’s salvation, Vincent wrote,

How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work. [Letter to Theo, September 1883]

Echoing Martin Luther and John Calvin‘s emphasis on conscientiousness and hard work (now labeled ‘Protestant work ethic‘,) Vincent believed that work is life’s highest reward and worthy of submission:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort. [Letter to Theo, February 1886]

He firmly believed that art—or more generally, work—like religion, was a way to communion with God.

To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture. [Letter to Theo, July 1880]

Vincent’s letters provide a profile of the shifting quality of his moods. Later, as a mature artist, he regarded his ability to create more sacrosanct than his godliness,

I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life—the power to create. [Letter to Theo, September 1888]

Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh on the Sense of Achievement and Identity that it Brings

Throughout his life, Vincent struggled to find meaning and establish some kind of harmonious relationship with the outer world. He seemed governed entirely by emotions (“the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it,” he once wrote to Theo.) People found him awkward and unreasonable; he even didn’t tend to his physical appearance. He acknowledged,

It is possible that these great geniuses (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Zola, Balzac, Millet) are only madmen, and that one must be mad oneself to have boundless faith in them and a boundless admiration for them. If this is true I should prefer my insanity to the sanity of others. [Letter to Emile Bernard, July 1888]

He caused anger, strife, or embarrassment wherever he went. He struggled in his professional and romantic relationships. However, he was determined to seek his sense of social identity through work. He wrote,

What am I in the eyes of most people? A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man, somebody who has no position in society and never will have. Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody. … Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people. [Letter to Theo, July 1882]

Vincent van Gogh on “the Secret of Beautiful Work”: Utmost Sincerity

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? … To a great extent the cause of the evil lies in the fact that the intentions of the great landscape painters have been misconstrued. Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies mainly in truth and sincere sentiment. [Letter to Theo, December 1882]

One of the keys to Vincent’s greatness is his incredible sincerity to his work. He exhibited his sense of extreme sincerity in two vocations he held before he decided to devote his life to being an artist. In both these instances, he proved deficient by giving too much of what the circumstances demanded of him.

  • At age 13, Vincent apprenticed with a leading art dealer in Paris where he assisted in the sale of paintings, photographs, and lithographs. This was his first experience with art. Within months, he began discussing unreservedly his opinions about the qualities of artwork with potential customers and frequently talked them out of sales. Within a year, his employer fired Vincent for conducting himself in a manner antithetical to the interests of the art dealership.
  • At age 26, Vincent started work as a lay preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium. Vincent was seized with compassion for the miners who toiled in darkness and exposed themselves to filthy dust. Having fully committed himself to this job and wanting to be like the poor miners, he even smeared his hands and face with soot and dirt. He gave away his belongings, lived on bread and water, and slept on a sack spread out on the floor of his miserable shed. The church’s committee of elders reprimanded Vincent for carelessness in dress and lack of dignity in the conduct of his office. They chastised him for his excessive zeal and dismissed him. His mother complained of his uncompromising stubbornness: “He will never comply with the wishes of the committee, and nothing will change him.”

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh on Giving Everything One’s Got to One’s Work

After nine years of meticulous experimentation and assiduous practice, Vincent developed his artistic expertise to a level where he could execute art swiftly. For the next two years, he focused on his artwork and produced masterpieces notwithstanding debilitating bouts of mental illness.

On investing in learning technique and mulling over ideas, Vincent said,

I consider making studies like sowing, and making pictures like reaping. [Letter to Theo, September 1882]

Successful people have the ability to concentrate on a single problem for extended periods of time. Vincent wrote,

The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.

It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.

It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so, or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’, but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. …

… Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.

And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool. [Letter to Theo, April 1878]

Vincent van Gogh - Sower with the Setting Sun

Vincent van Gogh Found Solace and Meaning in Painting

When he lived in the town of Arles in Southern France, he suffered his first attack of mental disturbance and cut off his own ear after a dispute with another artist during Christmas 1888. By May of 1889, he had already suffered two horrifying episodes of psychotic illness. Following a complaint about his conduct by the townspeople of Arles, he was terrified of the possibility of compulsory incarceration. He voluntarily joined the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

Vincent could not paint during periods of mental illness while at the asylum. On the road to recovery, Vincent sought peace in nature. He found solace and meaning in painting. He drew inspiration from nature and painted some of his well-known works here, including The Starry Night, and Wheat Field series. To Vincent, budding flowers symbolized the cycle of life and butterflies represented hope. Even the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly symbolized the ability of humans to transform,

… since nothing confutes the assumption that lines and forms and colours exist on innumerable other planets and suns as well, we are at liberty to feel fairly serene about the possibilities of painting in a better and different existence, an existence altered by a phenomenon that is perhaps no more ingenious and no more surprising than the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or of a grub into a maybug. [Letter to Emile Bernard, July 1888]

Vincent van Gogh on the Frustration of Inactivity and Incoherence

Road with Cypress and Star by Vincent Van Gogh One of the most impressive features of Vincent’s letters is the depth of his self-analysis, even about his debilitating illness and his helplessness with social wellbeing. Even when growing up, he possessed a difficult temper and lacked self-confidence. He wrote,

Do not imagine that I think myself perfect or that I think that many people taking me for a disagreeable character is no fault of mine. I am often terribly melancholy, irritable, hungering and thirsting, as it were, for sympathy; and when I do not get it, I try to act indifferently, speak sharply, and often even pour oil on the fire. I do not like to be in company, and often find it painful and difficult to mingle with people, to speak to them. But do you know what the cause is —if not at all, of a great deal of this? Simply nervousness; I am terribly sensitive, physically as well as morally, the nervousness having developed during those miserable years which drained my health. [Letter to Theo, July 1882]

Vincent’s lifestyle exacerbated his mental condition and compounded his problems. Towards the end of his life, he was deeply upset by the inability to paint and the incoherence in his creative process during periods of illness. After taking to work again during his stay at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, he wrote,

Life passes in this way, time does not return, but I am working furiously for the very reason that I know that opportunities for work do not recur. Especially in my case, where a more violent attack could destroy my ability to paint for good. … I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.[Letter to Theo, September 1889]

Conceivably, at the brink of death, Vincent was conscious about his mortality.

Theo van Gogh and Johanna van Gogh-Bonger

No discussion of Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) would be complete without mention of the extraordinary devotion of his brother Theo van Gogh (1857–91) and the zeal of Theo’s wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925.)

Portraits of Vincent van Gogh and Theo van Gogh

Theo van Gogh, the Devoted Brother

Vincent wouldn’t have been an artist had it not been for a squabble he had with his brother Theo who was visiting Vincent after he’d been fired from his job as a lay preacher in 1880. Until then, he held a variety of occupations—art dealer, schoolteacher, book seller, priest—where he proved deficient. Theo declared that the van Gogh family was worried about Vincent’s lack of direction in life, especially after several false starts in various vocations. Vincent once wrote,

Either inside or outside the family, they will always judge me or talk about me from different points of view, and you will always hear the most divergent opinions about me. And I blame no one for it, because relatively few people know why an artist acts as he does. [Letter to Theo, April 1881]

The ensuing dispute between Theo and Vincent marked a serious turning point in Vincent’s life: he resolved to become an artist. He would build on what was once a mere pastime. He would finally find his place in the world.

For the next eleven years, until Vincent’s tragic suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot, Theo supported Vincent not only emotionally, but also provided him a monthly stipend in exchange for his artworks.

The tragedy of Vincent’s life overwhelmed Theo. After losing his adored brother for whom he’d dedicated his life, Theo seemed no more himself. He suffered a stroke that led to paralysis. His health deteriorated rapidly and he died at the age of 33, just six months after Vincent’s death.

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the Determined Sister-in-Law

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger Vincent van Gogh signed only a few of his pieces “Vincent” but did not sign his name in full. He said,

Van Gogh is such an impossible name for many foreigners to pronounce; if it should happen that my pictures found their way to France or England, then the name would certainly be murdered, whereas the whole world can pronounce the name Vincent correctly. … they will surely recognize my work later on, and write about me when I’m dead and gone. I shall take care of that, if I can keep alive for some little time. [Quoted by Anton Kerssemakers, April 1912]

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law and Theo van Gogh’s wife, played a pivotal role in initiating the legacy and renown of Vincent. Johanna inherited all of Vincent’s artwork from Theo. Theo hadn’t been able to save much money because Vincent had been a perpetual drain on Theo’s earnings as an art dealer. Even though Johanna needed money to live on, she did not sell Vincent’s art.

Johanna came from a wealthy family with connections to artists throughout Europe. In the few years after Vincent’s death, Johanna contributed his art pieces to many exhibitions. She compiled 650 of his letters to Theo and published them in three volumes in 1914. She even wrote the first memoir of Vincent. She shared Theo’s conviction that, one day, Vincent’s artistic genius would be widely acknowledged. She lived to see that day.

Inspirational Quotations by Vincent van Gogh + A Précis of the Troubled Life of an Extraordinary Man

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh

It’s the birthday of Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853–90,) the prominent Dutch painter who is renowned for his characteristic style of undulating lines and bold colors. He produced a great number of masterpiece paintings and sketches in just 11 years dedicated to art. In fact, it was during the last two years of his life that Vincent produced all of his best-known pieces. Though it may surprise us in retrospect, his work was not widely appreciated during his lifetime. Now, of course, he is considered one of the most eminent post-Impressionist painters.

Equally fascinating are the tragic circumstances of Vincent’s short life. His productivity and artistic genius are especially remarkable in the context of his debilitating illness, which caused the self-mutilation of his ear and ultimately his fateful suicide. Even to this day, the trials and tribulations of a man posthumously discovered to be an extraordinary artist elicit haunting curiosity and even sympathy.

Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo and others offer a profound, soul-searching description of the jagged life of a genius who achieved much in the face of adversity. Scholars have even wondered if he was rather a great man who painted great pictures. When understood in a certain light, Vincent’s troubled life, his devotion to art, and his sense of purpose make one of the most inspiring stories in the world.

This article provides a brief story of Vincent’s life followed by inspirational quotations chosen from his letters to Theo. A subsequent article will delve into his philosophy of work and his sense of devotion.

Vincent van Gogh’s Quest for Meaning

Young Vincent van Gogh Vincent was raised in a religious and cultured atmosphere. Growing up, he possessed a difficult temper and lacked self-confidence. All through youth, Vincent struggled to find his place in the world. This was a precursor to his life-long struggle to find meaning and establish some kind of harmonious relationship with the outer world.

Vincent began his artistic career at the relatively advanced age. Until then, he held a variety of occupations where he had proved deficient. At age 26, Vincent started work as a lay preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium. As was his habit, Vincent quickly developed great empathy for the miners and fully committed himself to this job. He wanted to be like the poor miners—he even smeared his hands and face with soot and dirt. He gave away his belongings, lived on bread and water, and slept on a sack spread out on the floor of his miserable shed. The church’s committee of elders chastised him for his excessive zeal and fired him. His mother complained of his uncompromising stubbornness: “He will never comply with the wishes of the committee, and nothing will change him.”

Soon thereafter, Vincent’s younger brother Theo visited to discuss Vincent’s future. Theo declared that the van Gogh family was worried about Vincent’s lack of direction in life, especially after several false starts in various vocations. The ensuing dispute marked a serious turning point in Vincent’s life: he resolved to become an artist. He would build on what was once a mere pastime.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

The Art of a Self-Taught Genius

Vincent van Gogh - Self-Taught Genius For the next nine years, with Theo’s financial and emotional support, Vincent traveled around Europe teaching himself to draw and paint. He struggled financially and even starved sometimes after spending the entire stipend that Theo sent him on art supplies rather than on the necessities of living. After a great deal of meticulous experimentation and assiduous practice, Vincent developed his artistic expertise to a level where he could execute art swiftly.

Vincent was an artist for just 11 years before his death. In those 11 years, he completed more than 2,150 pieces, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, and sketches. Vincent was exceptionally productive towards the end of his life, churning out work with incredible speed—he sometimes executed up to three pieces a day. His most notable paintings are Starry Night, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Portrait of Joseph Roulin, Bedroom in Arles series, Sunflowers series, Church at Auvers, and several self-portraits including the iconic Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.

Following years of depression, frequent bouts of mental illness, struggles with personal relationships, and tumultuous romantic pursuits, Vincent shot himself at age 37, just when his artistic genius was starting to be acknowledged. In an unfinished final letter found on his person when he shot himself, he declared, “Well, the truth is, we can only make our pictures speak.” And speak they did: even today, art lovers marvel at Vincent’s attention to color, his ability to convey emotions, and his unique sense of observation. Although he was poor and practically unknown most of his life, Vincent’s work greatly influenced 20th century art.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

'Ever Yours: The Essential Letters' by Vincent van Gogh (ISBN 0300209479) Despite suffering from mental illness, Vincent possessed an extraordinary unity of mind and spirit. This is evident in the 700 letters he wrote over a period of 20 years, primarily to his beloved brother Theo. These letters are a marvelous record of his life, art, and philosophy. They are the primary source and substance for scholarly studies on Vincent’s life and work, particularly by art historians and psychiatrists.

“Ever Yours: The Essential Letters”, an absorbing anthology of correspondence between Vincent and Theo, sheds light on the shifting quality of his moods, his turbulent life, and philosophical evolution as an artist. Few other men and women have written such letters that reveal the inner workings of their minds and hearts.

I also recommend Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith’s brilliant biography, “Van Gogh: The Life and Anthology”, and Michael Howard’s “Van Gogh: His Life & Works in 500 Images”.

Inspirational Quotations by Vincent van Gogh

The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others.
Vincent Van Gogh

In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.
Vincent Van Gogh

I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may.
Vincent Van Gogh

Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.
Vincent Van Gogh

Some good must come by clinging to the right. Conscience is a man’s compass, and though the needle sometimes deviates, though one often perceives irregularities in directing one’s course by it, still one must try to follow its direction.
Vincent Van Gogh

If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.
Vincent Van Gogh

But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the rough draught turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a painting through the serious work done on it, through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love is something eternal; the aspect may change, but not the essence.
Vincent Van Gogh

What has changed is that my life then was less difficult and my future seemingly less gloomy, but as far as my inner self, my way of looking at things and of thinking is concerned, that has not changed. But if there has indeed been a change, then it is that I think, believe and love more seriously now what I thought, believed and loved even then.
Vincent Van Gogh

One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way.
Vincent Van Gogh

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.
Vincent Van Gogh

For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.
Vincent Van Gogh

If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint… and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.
Vincent Van Gogh

No matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily.
Vincent Van Gogh

I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
Vincent Van Gogh

Conscience is a man’s compass.
Vincent Van Gogh

If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things.
Vincent Van Gogh

Life is not long for anybody, and the problem is only to make something of it.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.
Vincent Van Gogh

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?
Vincent Van Gogh

The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
Vincent Van Gogh

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.
Vincent Van Gogh

A weaver who has to direct and to interweave a great many little threads has no time to philosophize about it, but rather he is so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think but acts, and he feels how things must go more than he can explain it.
Vincent Van Gogh

One must work and dare if one really wants to live.
Vincent Van Gogh

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.
Vincent Van Gogh

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.
Vincent Van Gogh

When we are working at a difficult task and strive after a good thing, we are fighting a righteous battle, the direct reward of which is that we are kept from much evil. As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.
Vincent Van Gogh

If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere.
Vincent Van Gogh

The best way to know God is to love many things.
Vincent Van Gogh

What is true is that I have at times earned my own crust of bread, and at other times a friend has given it to me out of the goodness of his heart. I have lived whatever way I could, for better or for worse, taking things just as they came
Vincent Van Gogh

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.
Vincent Van Gogh

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is a pity that, as one gradually gains experience, one loses one’s youth.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love always brings difficulties, that is true, but the good side of it is that it gives energy.
Vincent Van Gogh

Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way.
Vincent Van Gogh

The thing has already taken form in my mind before I start it. The first attempts are absolutely unbearable. I say this because I want you to know that if you see something worthwhile in what I am doing, it is not by accident but because of real direction and purpose.
Vincent Van Gogh

People are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.
Vincent Van Gogh

Lessons from a Social Media Disaster

30-year-old Justine Sacco made headlines in December 2013 for insensitive remarks on Twitter during her journey to visit family in South Africa.

  • Sacco tweeted about a fellow passenger on her flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, “‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’—Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”
  • And then, during her layover in London, she tweeted, “Chilly—cucumber sandwiches—bad teeth. Back in London!”
  • Subsequently, before boarding her aircraft for the final leg of her trip to Cape Town, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Justine Sacco published a tweet: 'Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm White!'

Sacco Should Have Known Better

Justine Sacco was the senior director of corporate communications at the digital media conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp. Her career centered on managing the intent and vocabulary of internal and external communications at a large multinational company.

Sacco’s last tweet sparked an immediate furor. By the time she landed in South Africa, thousands of angry tweets responded to her remarks. Reactions ranged from “Sorry @JustineSacco, your tweet lives on forever” to “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” to “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”

IAC/InterActiveCorp, her employer, tweeted, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” By the time she landed in South Africa, IAC had fired Sacco and released a statement saying:

The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question.

There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.

That One Stupid Tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s Career

Lessons from Justine Sacco's Social Media Disaster Justine Sacco later apologized for her insensitivity and stated, “Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet. … For being insensitive to this crisis … and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed. … This is my father’s country, and I was born here. I cherish my ties to South Africa and my frequent visits, but I am in anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people here; my family, friends and fellow South Africans. I am very sorry for the pain I caused.”

Sacco is now a communications manager for a small startup in New York. Even if she realized social media’s power in the most awful way possible and learned her lesson the hard way, the chances of her ever getting another significant job in corporate communications or public relations are remote. Presumably, it will take a long time for her to rebuild her career.

Alas, Humor is a Difficult Thing

Sacco probably isn’t racist or one who doesn’t sympathize with people with AIDS. Her tweet was simply a bad tweet.

Sacco, who deleted her Twitter account right away, had a history of tweeting sarcastic remarks and offensive little jokes. “I was so naive,” she later admitted to a Gawker columnist, claiming she never expected that her tweet would be misunderstood and misconstrued in such a way. She insisted her message was an attempt to mimic what a truly racist or ignorant person would say.

The Pitfalls of Social Media

Three Lessons from Justine Sacco’s Tweet: The Pitfalls of Social Media

  • Companies, publish social media guidelines for employees: Social media users easily blur the lines between their personal and professional personalities by openly declaring their affiliations on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other sites. Consequently, when they use social media in their professional or personal capacities, they can seriously harm their employer’s reputation. Whereas policing technology use or monitoring all published content is impractical, companies must educate employees about the pitfalls of social media. For example, the U.S. Air Force has a thorough handbook to help its employees engage online (and offline) communities in a positive way.
  • Folks, be mindful of your digital footprint; watch what you write. Social media has not only made us more accessible to one another, but also more accountable. Many prospective employers search social networking websites and the internet for more information on job candidates. Your online presence can be an asset or a liability. Any remark you post in the public domain can be distorted or misinterpreted. Refrain from venting complaints, writing crude posts, portraying organizations and individuals in negative light, bad-mouthing, and posting opinions on sensitive topics. Maintain a professional tone and post insightful content that appeals to prospective employers.
  • Be cautious with humor and sarcasm. “Humor is inherently ambiguous. That’s how it works. You’re saying more than one thing, and it’s never clear exactly what the message is,” says Prof. Rod Martin, who has researched the nature of humor at the University of Western Ontario. It’s amazing how quickly a well-intentioned remark or an offhand comment, when taken the wrong way, can completely derail communication. Humor and sarcasm are complicated. No matter how funny you think you are, you’ll stand the risk that people won’t “get it.” This is especially true in written form, which lacks the helpful subtext of tone and facial movement. It can be very difficult to foresee how others may receive humor or sarcasm: as a clever comment, show of callousness, or as passive-aggression. Exercise caution when it is necessary to use humor; don’t let it get out of control.

Idea for Impact: Social media mistakes may have serious consequences. Once made, those mistakes are not easy to fix. Be mindful of what you share on social media.

Postscript: While I understand the power of social media as an efficient medium for how our world currently interacts, I must admit I don’t understand why intrusive micro-blogging on Facebook (and worse, Twitter) is interesting. Personally, I find social media a gross distraction and invasion of privacy. This is besides the fact that, frankly, nobody cares where I am or what I am doing on an hour-by-hour basis. I deliberately choose to reduce my technological footprint and connect with people in more thoughtful and meaningful ways.

Inspirational Quotations #572

Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools.
Albert Einstein

Great talents, such as honor, virtue, learning, and parts, are above the generality of the world, who neither possess them themselves, nor judge of them rightly in others; but all people are judges of the lesser talents, such as civility, affability, and an obliging, agreeable address and manner, because they feel the good effects of them, as making society easy and pleasing.
Earl of Chesterfield

We must give more in order to get more, It is the generous giving of ourselves that produce the generous harvest.
Orison Swett Marden

A great many worries can be diminished by realizing the unimportance of the matter which is causing anxiety.
Bertrand A. Russell

Success serves men as a pedestal; it makes them look larger, if reflection does not measure them.
Joseph Joubert

Truth is the secret of eloquence and of virtue, the basis of moral authority; it is the highest summit of art and of life.
Henri Frederic Amiel

As you seek new opportunity, keep in mind that the sun does not usually reappear on the horizon where last seen.
Robert Brault

Never forget the three powerful resources you always have available to you: love, prayer, and forgiveness.
H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

A mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe, for felicity.
Thomas Jefferson

The art of using moderate abilities to advantage often brings greater results than actual brilliance.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld

You cannot consistently perform in a manner which is inconsistent with the way you see yourself.
Zig Ziglar

The Trouble with Targets and Goals

The Trouble with Targets and Goals

'The Balanced Scorecard - Translating Strategy into Action' by Robert Kaplan and David Norton (ISBN 0875846513) In a well-known 1992 Harvard Business Review article as well as a book on translating strategy into action, Robert Kaplan and David Norton explained the need for a “balanced scorecard.” They encouraged leaders to develop tools with which to monitor the performance of any organization. The authors explained, “Think of the balanced scorecard as the dials and indicators in an airplane cockpit. For the complex task of navigating and flying an airplane, pilots need detailed information about many aspects of the flight, like fuel level, airspeed, altitude, bearing, etc.”

Goals are effective apparatus—a persuasive system indicating what achievements matter the most to an organization. Well-defined objectives, expressed in terms of specific goals, often direct an organization’s performance, sharpen focus on the execution of the organization’s strategic and operative plans, and boost productivity.

In terms of an individual within a company, goal-setting is especially important as a way to provide ongoing and year-end feedback. You can give employees continuous input on their performance and motivate them by setting and monitoring targets.

Still, there are four things to look out for when setting and managing targets:

  • Some organizations get so overwhelmed with setting and meeting targets that managers tend to adopt whatever behaviors necessary to meet the goals set by their superiors.
  • In goal-setting, less is more and simple is better Some organizations get carried away and set too many targets. While goals are beneficial, having more of them is not necessarily better. In fact, too many targets can lead to stress, muddled efforts, and organizational atrophy. In this instance, employees feel as if they’re being asked to throw darts in multiple directions all at once. Adding to the confusion, priorities can even conflict with one another—e.g. decreasing production cycle-time while not hiring more workers or buying more equipment. According to a 2011 study by consulting firm Booz (now named Strategy&), 64% of participating global executives reported facing too many conflicting priorities. The celebrated management consultant Peter Drucker famously advised his clients to pursue no more than two priorities at a time:

Develop your priorities and don’t have more than two. I don’t know anybody who can do three things at the same time and do them well. Do one task at a time or two tasks at a time. That’s it. OK, two works better for most. Most people need the change of pace. But, when you are finished with two jobs or reach the point where it’s futile, make the list again. Don’t go back to priority three. At that point, it’s obsolete.

  • Sometimes, organizations can be so eager to reach a target that they institute an overly aggressive system (unreasonable “stretch goals“) in an attempt to drive people to heroic levels of performance. Instead, it’s best to have goals that represent what senior management thinks ought to happen, not the contents of their wildest dreams.
  • When grading an employee’s performance depends heavily upon that individual meeting his targets (e.g. bonuses promised to salesmen who achieve certain revenue targets,) it can pit employee against employee. This tends to create an unhealthily competitive environment with colleagues scrambling over each other to get to the client or show off their achievements to management. Conflicts and rivalry between employees is one of the dominant criticisms of the individual performance rating system and the forced ranking system that many companies currently practice.

Idea for Impact: In goal-setting, less is more and simple is better. A few well-chosen, consequential targets and goals can sharpen an individual’s or an organization’s focus and boost productivity. Too many targets can lead to stress and even disaster.

Inspirational Quotations #571

No habit or quality is more easily acquired than hypocrisy, nor any thing sooner learned than to deny the sentiments of our hearts and the principle we act from: but the seeds of every passion are innate to us, and nobody comes into the world without them.
Solon

They were so strong in their beliefs that there came a time when it hardly mattered what exactly those beliefs were; they all fused into a single stubbornness.
Louise Erdrich

All great men are gifted with intuition. They know without reasoning or analysis, what they need to know.
Alexis Carrel

Learning is about more than simply acquiring new knowledge and insights; it is also crucial to unlearn old knowledge that has outlive its relevance. Thus, forgetting is probably at least as important as learning.
Gary Ryan Blair

Contrary to what most of us believe, happiness does not simply happen to us. It’s something that we make happen, and it results from doing our best. Feeling fulfilled when we live up to our potentialities is what motivates differentiation and leads to evolution.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The poet can only write the poems; it takes the reader to complete the meaning.
Nikki Giovanni

We can do whatever we wish to do provided our wish is strong enough. But the tremendous effort needed – one doesn’t always want to make it – does one? … But what else can be done? What’s the alternative? What do you want most to do? That’s what I have to keep asking myself, in the face of difficulties.
Katherine Mansfield