Richard Feynman: Eccentric Genius and the “Adventures of a Curious Character” [What I’ve Been Reading]

This year, I’ve been reading many biographies of the great physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988.)

A Nobel laureate, Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. His academic life, acuity, life-philosophy, and ability to communicate science are inspirational to anyone pursuing his/her own life’s fulfillment.

In addition to his many scientific achievements, Feynman was known for his playfulness, varied interests and hobbies, and—perhaps most notably—his many eccentricities.

  • 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!' by Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (ISBN 0393316041) In a divorce complaint, Feynman’s second wife Mary Louise Bell complained, “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”
  • Feynman had the reputation of being a ladies’ man and offers many seduction techniques in his memoirs. His bestselling biography “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” devotes many pages to the art of picking up girls in Las Vegas.
  • In “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”, biographer James Gleick recalls Feynman’s tenure at Cornell: “There were entanglements with women: Feynman pursued them and dropped them, or tried to, with increasingly public frustration—so it seemed even to undergraduates, who knew him as the least professorial of professors, likely to be found beating a rhythm on a dormitory bench or lying supine and greasy beneath his Oldsmobile. He had never settled into any house or apartment. One year he lived as faculty guest in a student residence. Often he would stay nights or weeks with married friends until these arrangements became sexually volatile.”
  • 'Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman' by James Gleick (ISBN 0679747044) While a Professor at Caltech, Feynman would frequent a topless bar for a quiet office away from office. There, he used to work on scientific problems by sketching or writing physics equations on paper placemats and napkins. When local authorities shut down the topless bar, most patrons refused to testify in favor of the bar fearing that their families would learn about their visits. But not Feynman: he testified in favor of the bar by stating it was a public need frequented by craftsmen, technicians, engineers, common workers, and “a physics professor.”
  • When physicist Ernico Fermi died in 1954, the University of Chicago offered an astronomical salary (“a tremendous amount of money, three or four times what I was making”) to entice Feynman to back-fill Fermi’s position. Feynman responded, “After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do—get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things…With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”

Richard Feynman with a Princess of Denmark at the 1965 Nobel Banquet

  • When conferred a Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman sat at a table with a Princess of Denmark at the Nobel Banquet. During their small talk, Feynman introduced himself as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Princess remarked, “Oh. Well, nobody knows anything about that, so I guess we can’t talk about it.” Feynman was long-winded when he retorted, “On the contrary, it’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance–gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood–so it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!” Feynman later remembered that the Princess was flustered with his reply and recalled, “There’s a way of forming ice on the surface of the face, and she did it!”

For many more humorous anecdotes about Richard Feynman and the “Adventures of a Curious Character,” I recommend his extremely entertaining biographies:

Lessons from Sam Walton: Cost and Price as a Competitive Advantage

I recently finished reading “Made in America”, the bestseller autobiography of Sam Walton (1918–1992.) The book is very educational, insightful, and stimulating.

Walton, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. From 1985 until his death, he was the richest man in the world. On the 2015 list of the world’s richest individuals, his descendants ranked at #8, #9, #11, and #12.

Despite his immense fortune, Walton lived a humble life right up until his death. He as an enthusiastic outdoorsman and lived in a modest home in Bentonville, Arkansas, for 33 years. On quail hunting trips, he slept in smelly, old beat-up trailers and ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He even drove a red 1985 Ford pickup and famously said, “What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?”

Sam Walton's Red 1985 Ford Pickup Truck

Cost and Price Control

One of the book’s key takeaways is to “control your expenses better than your competition.” Walton says that this focus on cost-efficiency contributed more to Walmart’s enormous success than did any other aspect of his business model:

This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. For twenty-five years running—long before Wal-Mart was known as the nation’s largest retailer—we’ve ranked No. 1 in our industry for the lowest ratio of expenses to sales. You can make a lot of different mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you’re too inefficient.

A Child of the Great Depression Takes to Retail

Walton was a child of the Great Depression. The poverty he experienced while growing up in a rural Missouri farming community taught him the value of money, hard work, and perseverance.

Walton learned the value of a dollar early from his parents, who financially struggled to raise their family. The two squabbled constantly, except on one topic. “One thing my mom and dad shared completely was their approach to money: they just didn’t spend it.”

Walton was just plain cheap. His devotion to bargain became Walmart’s underpinning. He lived by a simple formula: pile it high, sell it cheap. “Say I bought an item for 80 cents. I found that by pricing it at $1.00, I could sell three times more of it than by pricing it at $1.20.” He refused to increase profit margins at the expense of price: “I might make only half the profit per item, but because I was selling three times as many, the overall profit was much greater. Simple enough.”

The Lasting Impact of Sam Walton

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. He studied his competitors and borrowed liberally. His strategy was to buy low, sell at a discount, and make up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory. Over the decades, Walmart has relentlessly squeezed as much value as possible from its supply chain and passed those savings on to consumers.

Walton’s passion to serve as the “agent” for consumers has changed retailing forever. It’s hard not to overestimate Walmart’s influence on local communities and economics. Walmart’s obsessive focus on low prices changed the way Americans shop. Its bargaining power, superlative size, and logistical efficiency not only dampened inflation, but also brought about productivity gains throughout retailing and manufacturing. Its dominance has attracted backlash from labor unions, anti-sweatshop campaigners, and anti-sprawl activists. Critics also blamed Walmart for contributing to the movement toward overseas production jobs, and for destroying small-town merchants.

However, Walmart’s business model has struggled overseas, especially with profitability in countries where it operates three fourths of its international stores.

Sam Walton’s Influence on Entrepreneurs

Walton inspired legions of other entrepreneurs who thrive on managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage. Prominently,

  • Dell’s Michael Dell kept costs low by using direct sales as his primary sales channel and orchestrating Dell’s supply chain with that of its suppliers.
  • Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary used absurdly low fares to generate demand from fare-conscious travelers who would have otherwise used alternative means of transportation or would have not traveled at all. O’Leary’s operating costs (aircraft, equipment, personnel, customer service, airport access, and handling) are one of the lowest in the airline industry.
  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos used innovative sales-discounting methods and a strong emphasis on customer service to grab market share from traditional retailers. Without the burden of operating physical stores, Amazon’s efficiency has played a key role in the structural shift away from brick-and-mortar retail.

The “wheel of retailing” theory in corporate strategy posits that a lower-cost innovator eventually undercuts every dominant merchant. To combat the risk of cost-leadership from Amazon and other online retailers, Walmart has made major investments in e-commerce, even at the risk of cannibalizing its in-store sales.

Make a Difficult Decision Like Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, American inventor, journalist, printer, diplomat, author, and founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was renowned for his lifelong quest for self-improvement, as he thoroughly documented in his “Autobiography” (1791.)

In my previous article on Benjamin Franklin’s “Plan for Conduct,” I noted that Franklin had a methodical mindset.

As a young adult, Franklin developed a method for making complex decisions. At age 66, in a letter to his close friend Joseph Priestley (a London chemist who, in 1774, isolated the element oxygen,) Franklin described this method.

In this letter written on September 19, 1772, Franklin mentions one of the key challenges of fact-collecting and decision-making:

In the affair of so much importance to you, wherein you ask my advice, I cannot for want of sufficient premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how. When these difficult cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under consideration all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternately prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.

Make a Difficult Decision Like Benjamin Franklin - T-charts

Then, Franklin describes how to weigh the “pro et contra” (Latin for “for and against”) in any situation:

To get over this, my way is, to divide, half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one pro, and over the other con. Then during three or four day’s consideration I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives that at different times occur to me for or against the measure. When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: if I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three. If l judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of farther consideration nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly. And though the weight of reasons cannot be taken with the precision of algebraic quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to make a rash step; and in fact I have found great advantage from this kind of equation, in what may be called moral or prudential algebra.

'The Benjamin Franklin Reader' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 743273982) Ben Franklin’s humble tool for decision-making is now known as the T-Chart. It is widely used to examine two opposing facets of a topic, object, situation, circumstance, or event under consideration. T-Charts are particularly helpful for analyzing advantages and disadvantages, as well as strengths and weaknesses.

Recommended Reading: For a great collection of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, including his “Autobiography”, see Walter Isaacson’s “A Benjamin Franklin Reader”.

Recharge Your Self-Growth through a “Plan of Conduct” à la Benjamin Franklin

In Boston at age 12, Young Benjamin Franklin became a printer's apprentice with his brother James Franklin Young Benjamin Franklin’s formal schooling was incomplete. He pursued education through voracious reading. In Boston at age 12, he became a printer’s apprentice with his brother James. At age 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia seeking a fresh start and initially worked in several printer shops around town.

At age 18, Franklin traveled to London to acquire some equipment for establishing a new newspaper in Philadelphia. However, the sponsor soon withdrew from the project; so a disappointed Franklin remained in London working as a typesetter. In 1726, at age 20, he decided to return to Philadelphia to strike out on his own.

Benjamin Franklin’s Organized Action Plan for Efficiency and Success

At the threshold of adulthood, Franklin ruminated on the kind of man he wanted to be. During his time in London, he was deeply unhappy that his life had so far been disorderly because he had never outlined a design for how to conduct himself. During his 11-week voyage from London to Philadelphia, he applied his methodical mindset to develop some rules for self-improvement and called them his “Plan of Conduct.”

Those who write of the art of poetry teach us that if we would write what may be worth the reading, we ought always, before we begin, to form a regular plan and design of our piece: otherwise, we shall be in danger of incongruity. I am apt to think it is the same as to life. I have never fixed a regular design in life; by which means it has been a confused variety of different scenes. I am now entering upon a new one: let me, therefore, make some resolutions, and form some scheme of action, that, henceforth, I may live in all respects like a rational creature.

  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
  2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action—the most amiable excellence in a rational being.
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of growing suddenly rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of every body.

'The Benjamin Franklin Reader' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 743273982) Franklin’s “Plan of Conduct” was a precursor to his constant quest in self-improvement, as documented in his “Autobiography” (1791.) A few years later, he supplemented his plan with a “Moral Perfection Project,” 13 guidelines to motivate himself to be more virtuous and strive for moral perfection.

These first few pursuits of self-improvement and reflection weren’t a passing fad for Franklin—he adhered to these rules for the rest of his life. He was proud that he had the wisdom to develop and commit to them so early in life. He reflected in his “Autobiography” (1791,) “It is the more remarkable, as being formed when I was so young, and yet being pretty faithfully adhered to quite through to old age.”

Idea for Impact: Create Your ‘Plan of Conduct’

Create your own rules for living and commit to them for a life of success and wisdom. The values you establish for yourself will align your actions with your goals and dreams and so reduce regrets of overlooked opportunities.

Recommended Reading: For a great collection of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, including his “Autobiography”, see Walter Isaacson’s “A Benjamin Franklin Reader”.

Does the Consensus Speak For You?


Charles Darwin Skirted the Danger That Is Public Scorn

Charles Darwin’s fear of disapproval almost pushed him into oblivion. Fear of others’ judgments just about forced Darwin to miss the title of the father of evolution.

Charles Darwin For over a decade, while Darwin (1809–1882) compiled a vast body of evidence in support of evolution, he suffered crippling anxiety whenever he considered publishing his theories. His principles of evolution by natural selection directly contrasted with the dominant views on the origin of life per Christian theology.

Darwin feared that publishing his views on evolution would affect his standing among his Victorian peers and with his outstandingly pious wife, Emma Darwin. To his botanist friend Joseph D. Hooker, Charles Darwin wrote, “it is like confessing a murder.”

Only before fellow British naturalist and anthropologist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) published his independent conclusions about evolution through natural selection did Darwin give up his fear of non-conformity. In 1889, he published his seminal “On the Origin of Species”. Darwin thus secured his place as one of most influential persons in human history by a slender lead.

To Conform Is to Be Treated as “One Of”

Our social and professional lives are brimming with rituals, customs, norms, rubrics, rules, procedures, and guidelines that we are expected to observe. There is a clear benefit to be gained from this conformity: when we follow the structures imposed on us, we fit in.

While conformity is often important to group cohesiveness and social acceptance, when conformity becomes unquestioning, we are vulnerable to groupthink. Groupthink creates a powerful pattern of conceptualizing, thinking, and living that disregards alternative rubrics and ignores alternate attitudes and behaviors.

Does the Consensus Speak For You

Don’t Passively Absorb Other’s Ideals

Nonconformance to social and organizational norms (engaging in deviant attitudes and behavior) can be problematic. As individuals, we risk being shut out, excluded, and disregarded. Possessing a life-philosophy and mindset that run counter to our peers and wider community can indeed be troubling. Therefore, the pressure to conform dominates our everyday lives. Too often, we silently bear the inconveniences of adherence and sacrificing our individuality.

In a 2001 interview with Charlie Rose discussing “Letters to a Young Contrarian”, author Christopher Hitchens, the outspoken critic of theocracy and religion and arguably the most masterful rhetorician of our times, said the following about being a contrarian:

'Letters to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens (ISBN 0465030335) It’s not for everybody. Not everyone wants to always be an outcast or out of step or against the stream. But if you do feel that the consensus doesn’t speak for you, if there’s something about you that makes you feel that it would be worth being unpopular or marginal for the chance to lead your own life and have a life instead of a career or a job, then I can promise you it is worthwhile, yes.

In the same vein, Apple’s Steve Jobs said in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford,

Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Idea for Impact: Shun Synthetic Conformity

Where practically possible, shun synthetic conformity. Question the authorities. Never feel content with the limits of your mind. Think independently. Form your own opinions. Engage your knowledge and your wisdom to discover your uniqueness. Exercise your freedom to determine your own experience in life instead of having it imposed by someone else. As Eleanor Roosevelt said in “You Learn by Living”, “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Lessons from the Biography of Tesla’s Elon Musk

I recently finished reading Ashlee Vance’s riveting portrait of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, CEO of SpaceX, chairman of SolarCity, and previously the founder of PayPal and other companies.

Musk has emerged as the foremost superstar/visionary-entrepreneur of Silicon Valley since Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away in 2011.

'Elon Musk' by Ashlee Vance (ISBN 0062301233) Vance’s biography reveals how Musk’s “willingness to tackle impossible things” has “turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley.”

Vance’s biography portrays Musk as an obsessively focused and a remarkably driven entrepreneur, but one who is almost unbearably difficult to work with. Musk is tirelessly demanding of employees, has low tolerance for underperformers, and does not like to share credit for successful ventures.

The book’s key takeaway is actually an admonitory lesson: Elon Musk may well be one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time—if your characterization of success is rather narrow. However, having an extreme personality and attaining great success come at the cost of many other things. In his drive to win, Musk sacrifices friends, business associates, and even his family to get what he wants. The story of Elon Musk exemplifies what happens when an overachieving leader regards individuals as tools and attaches more importance to his projects than to his people.

Complement Ashlee Vance’s “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” with biographies of two other entrepreneur-visionaries with aggressively competitive personalities: Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” and Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” Like Elon Musk, both Jobs and Bezos are reputed for their personal influence on every aspect of Apple and Amazon’s products and services. They are described as being demanding and demeaning to people who helped them realize their visionary aspirations.

These Celebrities and Hollywood Actors Didn’t Just Wait Around for Dream Jobs to Turn up

“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.”
Vincent van Gogh

Stories of superstars who struggled in their early careers are very inspiring

Some superstars had it made. They came from privileged backgrounds and had spectacular starts to their careers. They were lucky enough to attend the best schools, get the right pedigree, make the right connections, get an early break, or join the fast track to the top.

Other superstars were not so lucky in their early careers. Most of these men and women—particularly the archetypical self-made person—came from humble backgrounds and struggled to establish themselves. They found productive jobs to eke out a living, all the while never losing sight of their ambitions. They took every opportunity to learn and prove themselves. They worked hard to get a foot in the door, toiled in the trenches, learned everything about their trades, and painstakingly built their spectacular careers from the ground up. In sum, they didn’t just while their time away waiting for their desired jobs and dream gigs to show up.

Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt

Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt---Hollywood actors with humble early careers who didn't just wait around for dream jobs to turn up

Consider three Hollywood superstars who struggled during their early careers and worked modest jobs to earn their living but never abandoned their ambitions.

  • Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson (b. 1937) ran errands and worked as a messenger at Hollywood’s MGM animation studios before being “discovered.” He had moved from New Jersey to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and lived with his wannabe-actress mother (whom he thought was his sister until he was 36, a full ten years after her death.)
  • Comedian and Hollywood actor Robin Williams (1951–2014) gained precious experience in his twenties working as a mime artist in front of New York’s Museum of Modern Art while trying to find acting gigs. As a child, Williams hardly fit the stereotype of someone who would later pursue comedy. Born to a successful Ford executive, Williams grew up a shy, lonely child playing by himself in an empty room of his family’s mansion. He overcame his shyness only after taking drama classes in high school.
  • Celebrated actor and producer Brad Pitt (b. 1963) worked a variety of odd jobs while struggling to establish himself in Hollywood. To pursue his passion for the big screen, he moved to Los Angeles from Missouri two weeks before he was about to earn his degree in Journalism. He took acting lessons and made contacts. Within months, Pitt got uncredited roles in three films. For the next seven years, he gained increasing recognition in supporting roles on television and in films before securing leading roles that catapulted him to worldwide fame.

Examine the purpose of these examples viz. to emphasize that successful people find something productive to do while improving themselves and waiting for their big break. Take note of a crucial nuance: we are not discussing humble part-time or casual summer jobs that later-superstars held in their youth—e.g., Pope Francis worked as a bouncer in Buenos Aires, German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a barmaid in Leipzig, Bill Gates as a page in the United States Congress, Warren Buffett as a newspaper delivery boy in Washington, D.C.

Albert Einstein, Soichiro Honda, Stephen King

Albert Einstein, Soichiro Honda, Stephen King---Celebrities with humble early careers who didn't just wait around for dream jobs to turn up

Other disciplines also present plenty of superstars who pursued their ambitions while holding humble first-jobs.

  • Physicist and philosopher Albert Einstein (1879–1955) spent two frustrating post-college years searching for a teaching job before becoming a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. In between examining patent applications and during his spare time, he worked on physics problems. In his third year at the job, he wrote four groundbreaking papers that transformed physics.
  • When Japanese engineer and industrialist Soichiro Honda (1906–1991) moved to Tokyo at age 15 to find work as an auto mechanic, a repair shop owner hired him as a nanny to his infant. With a child in tow, Honda often meandered about the garage, observing and learning from the mechanics. When the child was asleep, Honda tinkered with engines and started giving suggestions to the mechanics. He strengthened his passion for automotive engines just as the nascent industrial base of Japan was finding a new enthusiasm for machines.
  • 'Carrie' by Stephen King (ISBN 0307743667) Best-selling author Stephen King (b. 1947) struggled for years after graduating from college. He and his writer-wife grappled financially and lived in a trailer home. He worked hard at building a career as a writer and developed ideas for many novels. King sold short stories to men’s magazines and worked small jobs to make a living. When working as a janitor in a school locker room, he was inspired to write a novel titled “Carrie”. Set in a girls’ locker room, Carrie features a schoolgirl who exercises her newly-discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on her bullies. Carrie turned into King’s first published novel and lent him his big break.

Idea for Impact: Self-disciplined people don’t wait for the right answer or the golden path to present themselves. They understand that the best way to get unstuck is to start somewhere, focus on action, keep themselves productive, amend their course if necessary, and do all this without losing sight of their goals and ambitions.

A note of caution: Stories of superstars’ successes are but cherry-picked examples

“Welcome to Hollywood. What’s your dream?
Everybody comes here. This is Hollywood, the land of dreams.
Some dreams come true, some don’t. But keep on dreamin’.
This is Hollywood. Always time to dream, so keep on dreamin’.”
— From “Pretty Woman” (1990)

More than we possibly realize, so much of life’s success in life has to do with luck (or fate or destiny.) As I’ve written previously, success is often more about being at the right place, at the right time, and with the right person than about possessing the right skills and working hard.

The above are merely examples of a few lucky superstars who made it big in Hollywood or in their chosen disciplines and followed their passions as careers.

For every Stephen Hawking or J. K. Rowling, there are thousands of wannabe writers whose creative writing doesn’t even pay enough to buy the notebooks they use.

For every Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, or Brad Pitt, there are countless Hollywood wannabes struggling in the “Land of a Million Dreams.” What’s more, among actors who manage to find work, an even smaller fraction of them actually make a living doing it. Part-timers are paid so little that they must work at stores, restaurants, or bars at night and on weekends. The cost of living in Southern California has hit the roof; even professionally-done headshots cost hundreds of dollars. The celebrity impersonators and street performers on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame have even started aggressively pestering tourists and photographers for bigger tips.

Celebrity impersonators and street artists on Hollywood's Walk of Fame pestering tourists for bigger tips

In the la-la land of Los Angeles, chances are that any random person you meet is an aspiring actor, model, designer, musician, songwriter, screenplay writer, director, stunt-double, makeup artist, or is trying to get some gig in the entertainment industry. Each aspirant is taking classes, trying to make contacts, looking for auditions, hoping to land jobs, wishing to be “discovered” by an actor or noticed by a talent agent at a restaurant, club, or elsewhere.

Competition is brutal and the market for fame is saturated

In Hollywood, anything is possible and yes, “some dreams come true.” However, in reality, there’s an infinitesimal chance that any aspirant will ever get a break. Even still, thousands of hopefuls flock to Hollywood every year (and thousands of rejects move out.) After endless auditions, rejections, or false starts, they wake up to the harsh realities of competition and get jobs that are more gratifying than chasing a near-impossible dream.

“He that lives upon hope will die fasting.”
Benjamin Franklin

If you have a passion for something that will not pay adequately, pursue it on the side. Here’s some sage advice from my mentor Marty Nemko:

Do what you love, but don’t expect to get paid for it. Want to be on stage? Act in community theater. Want to be an artist? Convince a restaurant to let you decorate its walls with your creations. To make money, pick a field that pays decently and has few liabilities. Chances are, that will lead to more career contentment than pursuing a long-shot dream as your career. Treating a long-shot dream as an avocation gives you most of its pleasure without forcing you to endure a life of poverty.

Control Your Efforts, Not the Outcomes

General Eisenhower addressing American paratroopers on 5-June-1944 before the Battle of Normandy.

During World War II, President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. On 2-June-1944, he issued a memo to his troops just before the Allied invasion of Normandy:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely. … The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle.

We will accept nothing less than full Victory! Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

Under Eisenhower’s leadership, the Allied forces had meticulously planned Operation Overlord for over a year. For months, Eisenhower’s troops not only rehearsed their D-Day roles and routines, but also went to exceptional lengths to uphold the secrecy of their plans and deceive the German forces about troop movement. The Allied forces even plotted to cut off all roads and rail lines leading to the coast of Normandy and thus block reinforcements for the German troops.

Some things are simply beyond your control—you can only do your best

Despite all the strategizing and training, the success of the Allied invasion depended on the weather across the English Channel—their success essentially rested on something beyond their control.

The Allied aircrafts sought air superiority and would be unable to locate targets if low clouds covered Normandy. In addition, if the tides were high or the seas heavy, the troops would be unable to launch their landing crafts. The success or failure of their landings hinged entirely on suitable weather.

Eisenhower tentatively planned to send his troops across the English Channel on 5-June. The day before, however, the troops predicted cloudy skies, rain, and heavy seas that were inappropriate for the invasion. Eisenhower decided to postpone the invasion by a day, when the forecasted weather was to be more suitable than on 5-June, but not necessarily perfect for his plans. If he did not invade on 6-June, the tides would not favor an invasion for another two weeks, which would possibly give the Germans enough time to get wind of the Allies’ plan.

Dwight Eisenhower and the Invasion of Normandy

Eisenhower gave the marching orders for 6-June. It was then that he realized that the success of the invasion was no longer in his hands. Its outcome depended on 160,000 allied troops, thousands of commanders, and hundreds of lieutenants. Eisenhower had done everything in his power to coordinate their efforts and create conditions conducive to the mission’s success. After issuing his orders, all he could do was let those conditions come to fruition on their own terms. After all his efforts, he could not control the outcomes—he let go of the outcomes.

In time, the hard-fought cross-channel invasion was successful—Eisenhower won his wager with the weather. The invasion of Normandy proved to be a turning point in World War II. Despite formidable obstacles and thousands of casualties, the Allied troops prevailed over the German forces in landing at the coast of Normandy. Within days, Allied forces quickly consolidated at the beachheads and built up troops. Within two months, they broke out from their beachheads in Normandy and advanced on the Axis powers. The Allies liberated Europe when German troops surrendered unconditionally on 8-May-1945.

Control Your Efforts---Not the Outcomes

Idea for Impact: Focus on effort and lower your expectations of the outcomes

The wise among us understand what’s within their control and what’s not. They recognize that “you win some, you lose some.”

Success and results are not often within your span of control. However, you can control your effort and ability to create the conditions for success. Focus on your efforts, then let those conditions unfold.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna instructed Arjuna, “set thy heart upon thy work but never its reward” (verse 2:47.) And the Buddha counseled his followers to lower their expectations in order to achieve happiness, a belief that is not without proof in the hurly-burly world we live in.

Moreover, even if you can, don’t go overboard with your efforts. Push yourself to the max only when the stakes are big enough. As I mentioned in a previous article, a 110% effort may not fetch more rewards than an 80% or a 90% effort.

Be committed to your job, but don’t overly invest in it.

The Best 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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