Starbucks’s Comeback / Book Summary of Founder and CEO Howard Schultz’s “Onward”

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz’s “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul” is an interesting case study of organizational change as orchestrated by a passionate entrepreneur. The book covers the first two years of the turnaround of Starbucks after Schultz returned as CEO.

'Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul' by Howard Schultz, Joanne Gordon (ISBN 1609613821) In 2007, in the face of falling consumer spending and the upcoming Great Recession, the consumer discretionary sector was hit hard. Like other companies in that realm, Starbucks’ sales and profitability had dropped. The company’s stock price plummeted after Wall Street pared the rich valuations (high price-to-earning) of the company’s once-hot growth stock. Through these trials, Schultz worked at the company’s Seattle headquarters as chairman. Even after retiring as CEO in 2001, he had never left the company entirely and had even interjected often during Starbucks’ presentations to investors.

Starbucks’ financial under-performance was likely as much due to the economic slowdown as it was self-inflicted. In an apparent instance of misplaced cause-and-effect, Schultz blamed the company’s leadership for focusing too much on rapid expansion, opening too many stores, and diluting the in-store Starbucks experience. Behind the CEO’s back, Schultz started working with strategy consultants and other board members to develop a “transformational agenda” centered on the core values of the company he had founded in 1982.

In January 2008, Schultz invited the CEO home on a Sunday evening, fired him, and assumed the CEO position for a second stint. Over the next two years, Schultz rejuvenated the company’s mojo by making operational improvements and focusing on employee engagement, Starbucks’ specialty coffee products and its distinctive in-store customer experience.

Schultz’s vision, focus, and execution of this transformation makes up the bulk of “Onward”. One dominant theme in the book is founder’s syndrome—the intense reluctance of entrepreneurs like Schultz to cede control of their businesses.

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz

Towards the end of 2009 (when “Onward” was authored,) the economy started to improve. A measured recovery in consumer confidence invigorated the fortunes of most consumer discretionary companies that had suffered during the downturn. At Starbucks, customers returned to stores and spent more. Sales and profitability improved. The company’s valuation on Wall Street soared again. Conceivably, Starbucks may have enjoyed a comeback even if Schultz had remained just the chairman, retained and supported the CEO, and worked with the company’s leadership team to initiate course corrections.

That Starbucks continues to be an American success story and has done extraordinarily well to date under Schultz’s leadership is one more instance of a beloved fairy tale in the world of business—that of a company in distress rescued by the return of its visionary founder.

“Onward” is Schultz’s somewhat grandiose narrative of his return as CEO. The 350-page book is brimming with peripheral details, self-congratulatory superlatives, recurring claims, and Pollyanna-isms that are illustrative of a charismatic entrepreneur and a brilliant corporate cheerleader.

Recommendation: Skim. (For Starbucks aficionados: Read.)

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere.
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

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

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

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conscience is a man’s compass.
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars: A Case Study in Determination and Competitive Ferocity


Competition Drives so much of our World Today

We live in a hypercompetitive age where winning is the outcome, often necessary for survival—in classrooms, sports, trade and commerce or at work. The archetypical successful person is determined, aggressive, and obsessed with winning at everything, sometimes at any cost. Of course, competition is healthy; but, winning may come at a hefty price—always striving to win or being overzealous can be both unnecessary and unproductive. Besides, collaborative or naturally uncompetitive individuals tend to find competitive people somewhat unpleasant.

History provides but a few vivid portraits of intense competition that compare to the mid-90s’ “browser wars,” a narrative characterized by the dogged determination and intense competitive spirit of some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are legendary for using brute power: whenever a new competitor emerged, Microsoft would muster its financial resources and its smarts to storm into those markets with alternative products that would eventually dominate. Up until the dot-com bust, Microsoft not only out-competed Borland, Lotus Development, Corel, and other rivals that were previously in the lead, but also crushed upstarts such as Netscape.

“The Browser Wars”: Rise and Fall of Netscape

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars At the start of 1995, a new software called Netscape Navigator took the computing world by storm. Unlike primitive browsers, Netscape could display text and graphics on websites. Early web buffs eager to discover the marvel of the nascent internet were no longer restricted to downloading text alone. In addition, Netscape could render web pages on the fly while they were still being downloaded. Users did not need to stare at a blank screen until their dial-up connections loaded text and graphics.

Even more astounding was the fact that the upstart Netscape Communications, Netscape Navigator’s creator, had been co-founded by a 23-year-old programmer just a few months previously and seemed well-positioned to take advantage of the imminent consumer internet revolution. Netscape was on its way to an extraordinary 90% market share amongst internet browsers. What’s more: the company’s spectacular IPO was drawing near and was to start the dot-com boom.

Netscape’s meteoric rise could not escape the attention of the world’s dominant software company. Early in 1995, Microsoft was particularly occupied with finalizing Windows 95. Its launch, scheduled for August 1995, would prove to be the largest, most expensive consumer marketing endeavor in history. Moreover, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) had embarked on an intrusive investigation into claims of unfair business practices as alleged by Microsoft’s competitors.

While Netscape was capturing the Web browser market, Microsoft and Bill Gates had seemingly missed the paradigm shift created by the consumer internet. Financial and technology analysts wondered if Microsoft was destined to lose its supremacy over software. Microsoft could not wait on the sidelines and cede business opportunities in the upcoming consumer internet revolution.

Browser Wars: The Rise and Fall of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer

Bill Gates and Microsoft Jumped on the “Internet Tidal Wave”

Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and the Microsoft team were not to be trifled with. Microsoft simply could not afford to be the underdog. Its strategy was transformed entirely when, on 26-May-1995, Bill Gates wrote the groundbreaking internal memo, “The Internet Tidal Wave.”

Bill Gates deployed an extraordinary amount of capital and talent to battle for control over consumer internet. Just after the August-1995-release of Windows 95, Microsoft released an inferior Internet Explorer 1.0. In 1996, Version 3.0, matched the features of Netscape Navigator. Finally, in 1997, after bundling Internet Explorer 4.0 into Windows 95, Microsoft started to take a significant market share from Netscape.

In 1998, the DOJ and twenty US states alleged that Microsoft had illegally thwarted competition by abusing its monopoly in personal computers to bundle its Internet Explorer and Windows operating system.

By 1999, Netscape was an inferior web browser and quickly lost its dominance. The software’s market share dropped from 90% in 1996 to a meager 4% by 2002.

In subsequent installments of the browser wars, Netscape Navigator’s open-source successor, Firefox, regained market share from Internet Explorer. More recently, Firefox and Internet Explorer have had to contend with Google’s Chrome, which has grown to be the dominant web browser.

Microsoft Set Out to Destroy Competitor after Competitor

Historically, Microsoft has never been a substantial innovator. Instead, the company’s most famous strategy was to be a “fast follower.” The variety of rivals’ projects made no difference—competitors could pioneer anything from graphical user interfaces (GUI,) pointing devices, spreadsheets, word processors, browsers or gaming consoles and Microsoft would catch up in due course.

Consequently, the most important Microsoft products started essentially as copies of existing products made by competitors or upstarts that Microsoft was able to purchase early. MS-DOS evolved from QDOS, which itself derived from CP/M. Microsoft Windows was inspired by Apple’s Macintosh, which, in turn, had been inspired by a prototype mouse-driven graphical user interface that Steve Jobs had seen at Xerox PARC. Microsoft Excel borrowed from VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. In addition to riding the coattails of bona fide innovators, Microsoft excelled in smart integration—it combined nifty functions and features into a single product or into a suite of easy-to-use tools such as its Office productivity software.

Microsoft’s Once-Invincible Strategy of Being a “Fast Follower” Wasn’t Sustainable

Alas, in the last 15 years, Microsoft’s “fast follower” competitive strategy has proven unsustainable. As its dominance in the enterprise world grew, Microsoft’s impressive financial performance relied mostly on its “old faithful” franchises. In fiscal 2014, the Windows operating system, Office productivity suite, and servers/cloud businesses contributed 78% of Microsoft’s revenue and almost all of the gross profit.

Despite the competitive ferocity of Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and others at the company’s helm, Microsoft has been unable to return to its domineering ways in the internet’s recent mobile- and social-computing trends. In fact, Microsoft stumbled in category after category of consumer computing and technology, including search, social networking, phones, music players, and tablets. Google, Facebook, Apple—lead by entrepreneurs just as intensely competitive as Bill Gates—have soared ahead, altering the social-media-tech consumer experience.

Recommended Reading: If you like business history and entrepreneurial success stories, read ‘Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time’, Daniel Gross’s engaging profiles of twenty great American entrepreneurs: Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris, McDonald’s ‘founder’ Roy Kroc, Walt Disney, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, et al. For more stories of Bill Gates’s fierce competitive instincts, read Stephen Manes’s “Gates”.

David Ogilvy on Why It Pays to Advertise

I’ve been reading Ogilvy on Advertising, written by David Ogilvy (1911–1999,) the founder of Ogilvy & Mather.

Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy (1911--1999) Ogilvy is one of the founding fathers of modern advertising and spent his life preaching the benefits of research in salesmanship, long informative copy, creative brilliance, and results for clients. Ogilvy famously said, “It is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”

Ogilvy on Advertising provides excellent sage advice into the art of selling smart. Many of the principles in this book are dated, but the ideology and creative thought processes discussed are timeless.

Ogilvy cites this anonymous poem on why it pays to advertise.

The codfish lays ten thousand eggs,
The homely hen lays one.
The codfish never cackles
To tell you what she’s done—
And so we scorn the codfish
While the humble hen we prize.
It only goes to show you
That it pays to advertise!

General Electric’s Jack Welch on Acting Quickly

General Electric's Jack Welch on Acting Quickly

Jack Welch, General Electric's former CEO Jack Welch was the Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE) from 1981 to 2001. During Welch’s twenty-year tenure, GE grew into one of the largest and most admired companies in the world. Jack Welch is widely recognized as one of the greatest business leaders of our time. In 1999, Fortune magazine named him the ‘Manager of the Century.’

In an interview with Spencer Stuart executive headhunters Thomas Neff and James Citrin for the book “Lessons from the Top”, Jack Welch regrets not taking action quickly during his tenure at General Electric.

I think the biggest mistake I made is a fundamental one. I went too slow in everything I did. … If I had done in two years what took five, we would have been ahead of the curve even more.

You rarely do things too fast. If you think about your life and the decisions you’ve made, you can’t come up with too many where you said, “I wish I took another year to do it.” But you can sure come up with a list where you say, “I wish I had done a bunch of things six months earlier.”

Call for Action

Procrastinators sabotage themselves. However, procrastination is a learned behavior and therefore can be unlearned.

In all spheres of life, competition has transitioned from “big-eat-small” to “fast-eat-slow.” Good ideas are relatively easy to come up with. However, quick and efficient execution is primary to the success of these ideas. When a hundred people probably have the same idea, execution in a fast timeframe is just about the only thing that matters.

Are you holding back on your ideas? Do the tasks look daunting? Do you lack confidence? Are you uncertain of the direction or afraid of failure? How can you overcome these hesitations? Develop a set of ideas to reach your goals, prioritize them, and commence working on your ideas right away. Why delay?