Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

The Untold Story Behind Vincent van Gogh’s Success

Not every mom puts her kids’ drawings on the refrigerator. Some mothers are critical, even cruel. And to be fair, some drawings are just not that good. But can you imagine being the mother of Vincent van Gogh and ridiculing your child’s work? It sounds crazy, but crazy was a major theme of his life.

The Untold Story Behind Vincent van Gogh's Success

Vincent van Gogh led a life of madness, one with many starts and stops that looked as frenetic on the outside as they must have felt on the inside. Only during the final years of his short life was Vincent a professional artist, and even then, a tortured one ridiculed by others, even by his own mother.

So what can we learn from the career of a man whom history either remembers as a lunatic or a genius? A lot, in fact.

False starts can lead to success

An impassioned young man never content to sit still for too long, Vincent van Gogh chased many vocations in his youth.

First, he apprenticed for an art dealer in London, which was an arrangement made by his family and one he eventually resented. This was where the first of many heart-breaking love affairs would occur.

Then he pursued a career in Christian ministry.

After a dramatic conversion experience in London, the zealous van Gogh was determined to enter the pastorate. Unfortunately, he failed the required entrance exam to begin his theological education, which was then followed by another failed attempt at gaining a religious education.

This was a common theme in van Gogh’s life: failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment. When it became clear that in spite of his fervor, he would not likely become a pastor, he was forced to face the facts. He was going to have to find another path. Still, he continued to try to force it.

Van Gogh spent some time as a traveling missionary and evangelist before eventually deciding to become an artist, a vocation he believed might also honor God. At the time, it looked as if he was wandering through life; in fact, his parents were deeply concerned, probably even ashamed of him.

At one point, Vincent’s father looked into admitting the eccentric boy to an insane asylum. But despite the series of seemingly disparate events, in retrospect, we see a pattern: from young Vincent’s long walks as a child in nature, where he marveled at the natural beauty of creation; to an early apprenticeship for an art dealer; to his failed attempts at entering the ministry. None of it was an accident.

There was a force, which van Gogh believed to be God, guiding him through life, helping him find his way. Such a force guides each of us, leading us to our destiny. But the way this force chooses to reveal itself is surprising.

At times, it may feel and look like failure; it certainly did for Vincent. But what’s really happening is our life is being directed, guided in a certain direction, in a way that is beyond our control. As we continue to face adversity, we adapt. We grow.

Trust yourself

What made Vincent van Gogh remarkable, and the reason we know his name today, is that he didn’t quit. At no point did he ever give up on the search for his calling. He knew he was destined for greatness, believing God had called him to some sacred service — he just didn’t know what it was.

“My only anxiety,” Vincent wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, “is how can I be of use in the world?”

So he kept going, trying new things until he found something that worked. And as with other stories of calling, this wasn’t something new. It was something old, something he had always loved but hadn’t considered a career, maybe due to the jabs of his mother or pressure from his family to make a living. At the age of twenty-seven, however, Vincent van Gogh decided to become an artist.

It’s a little disingenuous to say he didn’t give up. He did, in fact, quit many things. He just never gave up on that inner nudge he felt to do something significant with his life. He used failure to help him find out what it was, using each closed door of opportunity as a pivot point to send him in a new direction.

Vincent van Gogh failed his way to success. And when he got to his destiny, he realized how everything, from his spiritual frustration borne of growing up under a Dutch clergyman to his obsession with the outdoors, all had a purpose. All these things were preparation; they became his inspiration.

His career as an artist was short-lived, lasting only ten years. His life ended at the age of thirty-seven at his own hands, and he died a poor, mentally ill man. His brother had to finance most of his career, and he experienced little commercial success during his life. And yet, within a hundred years, his name would become famous, and his works would go on to be some of the most valuable in the world.

Why gatekeepers matter

How did this happen? It wasn’t just luck. There were guides who met Vincent at every stop along his journey. These were the people who both rejected him and affirmed him. Each step was an approach towards greatness, even when that step involved failure.

When he failed, Vincent grew reflective, asking himself what he was doing wrong. And what often happened afterward was a renewed resolve to dedicate himself more fully to his work. As he continued, he found people who resonated with what he was trying to do, even when he didn’t fully understand it.

This very much follows what one psychology calls the “systems theory of creativity”, which I wrote about here. What it takes for an artist to succeed is not to simply master his or her craft and wait for people to acknowledge their genius. It doesn’t work like that.

If you want your creative work to succeed, you have to satisfy three core systems: the self, the field, and the domain.

Practically, what that means is you have to get good, then you have to find gatekeepers who affirm the importance of your work, and then you must do something that changes or contributes to your domain in some way.

For Vincent van Gogh, that meant struggling for years, first trying to find his calling in life, and then dedicating himself to the practice of art to the point that he could acquire enough hours to be great. But that, in and of itself, was not enough.

Vincent had to find people in the art world whom others trusted, and this was difficult. At the time, the way Vincent painted was so bizarre and offensive that people didn’t know what to do with it. It looked like child’s play. But when he met a group of French painters, everything changed. He realized that his dense paint and broad brushstrokes full of bright, vibrant colors had a name: Impressionism.

Then there was his brother Theo, who acted as a patron to his art for a decade, supporting him both financially and emotionally, if not always fully understanding him. The two van Gogh brothers were so closely connected that shortly after the latter took his life, the former joined him in death.

Even in death, Vincent van Gogh had not attained the level of fame his work would soon experience. It was his sister-in-law, Theo’s wife, who saw to it that his paintings were sold and eventually recognized. Were it not for Johanna van Gogh, we may not have ever seen Starry Night or any number of other paintings that are now worth millions.

Deconstructing genius

So what does this mean for us? If we feel, as Vincent did, that we have important work to share, then we must consider the road ahead of us. It won’t be easy, but the reward may be worth the obstacles.

Here are three lessons I think we can learn from this story:

  1. Listen to failure. Vincent van Gogh failed a lot, but each failure taught him something about himself and moved him closer to his calling. If you sense you are somehow destined for greatness but don’t know what to do, do what Vincent did and just start trying things. Failure will be a good friend and guide you to where you want to go.
  2. Persevere in the right things. Not all failure is a sign that you should quit. Over time, you will learn to trust yourself. I find that prayer and meditation are worthwhile practices for this. Deep in your subconscious, there is what my friend Dov calls an “inner knowing” which will tell you where to go and what to do. In other words, pay attention to your intuition and keep doing the things it tells you to do.
  3. Find people who resonate with your work. Even if that means seeking out other outcasts, as it often does for creative individuals, you need a collective. The French Impressionists were in many cases banned from art galleries and their work was censored for years. But they banded together to create something new and fresh. And over time, people began to understand it. But until that happened, they had each other, which was enough encouragement to keep going.

The creative life is filled with rejection and failure, but that’s not all there is to it. There is also success and encouragement and meaning when you understand how to navigate this windy road. Good luck.

Resources

To learn more about van Gogh, mastering your craft, and how creative people succeed, check out the following:

And if you haven’t picked up a copy of my best-selling book, The Art of Work, yet, I highly recommend that. You can get the audio for free here.

What failures are you listening to? How are you pushing through rejection on the right things? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

Start Building Your Audience Today

Download my free eBook and learn exactly what I did to grow my blog from zero to 100,000 readers in 18 months.

In this book, I share everything I’ve learned from building a tribe and becoming a full-time writer — and how you can do the same.

Click here to download the free book now.

  • Marlane Mazur

    WOW! This was so informative, Jeff! I never knew much about his mother. I only had read that they were ‘distant’ & I didn’t realize how close the brothers were. You gave a lot of ideas here for a struggling writer in your 3 ‘Deconstructing genius’ lessons. I always have encouraging tid-bits, constructive comments or sayings that come past me, printed and taped to the corner of my monitor. When I’m discouraged, I read them. Sometimes, my coffee gets cold because I read them 10 times over until they sink in. I will re-read these today while I write my 500. Thanks again. I feel better already! Lane

  • thank you Jeff for a very well thought out, and well-written, piece. I particularly appreciated how you broke down the 3 core systems: self, field, & domain. It’s taken a long time for me to get just how powerful, and essential, these there are to success. And using Van Gogh’s life as an illustration to make this point was very effective.

  • Olga

    Jeff – thanks for the info re van G. He’s one of my favorite artist. Two of his Sunflowers hang in my house. I knew a lot about him and his work, but now with your input I know more. The poor guy. Trying to imagine his failures, his keeping-on certainly is a “boot to the rear” when dark days do appear. Olga

    • The REAL Sunflowers? Or reproductions? :)

  • Wow…thank you so much for sharing this story. I didn’t realize what Van Gogh’s life was really like as an artist. I think many of us creatives experience those discouraging voices throughout our lives. I’ve been struggling a lot with fearing failure, especially when it comes to writing and hoping that I somehow “succeed.” But your 500 words challenge has taught me that writing is more about honoring the process than worrying about the outcome. And the overwhelming message I hear in this article is that failure can be a faithful friend. The important thing is to discover when to pivot and when to persevere. Thanks for this encouragement today!

  • AnthonyDejolde

    Thanks for writing this, Jeff.

    Even as a teen, Vincent van Gogh’s story had impacted my life. So when I visited your blog and found that you’re writing about him, I just had to follow my instincts and read. And, boy, was I right! I’m rewarded with a great post.

    My take away is “listening to failure”. Based from experience, it’s hard to learn from failure. Most of the time, emotions get in the way, blocking my ability to absorb lessons. But, now, looking at Vincent’s life, I’m more inclined to dissect the factors why I failed in one endeavor and try hard to learn from the experience. Epic post, Jeff. Many thanks!

  • Lemichael Dotson

    Great post. I think anyone who ever wanted something more out of life had a little Van Gogh going on. I can definitely relate his story to my life.

    • Love hearing that, Lemichael. Thank you.

  • #2 jumps at me big time Jeff and I’d add, persevere not only at the right things but only with the fun stuff, the heart-singing stuff, the stuff that the Small Still Voice tells you to do versus ego or other fear-filled people. That is the path to greatness and it really does get shorter when you ONLY listen to the Small, Still Voice.

    Ego leads to failure and struggle, or victory but struggle and anxiety. My intuition – and everybody’s really – has led me in the most freeing direction. Gotta have faith, trust and outsource the money-making bit to the Universe. This is tough at first. Maddening. But being appreciative has made light year’s worth of difference in my life.

    I used to bemoan struggles and blame and break down and flip out for months then years. Then I felt more and more appreciative, decided to trust in something Bigger to always take care of me, and the massive struggles vanished. Still have little roadblocks here and there but they seem to melt uber quickly into appreciation and trust, and of course, the more I focus on listening to my Fun Guide and detach outcomes, outsourcing them to God, wouldn’t ya know that things seem to be manifesting for me, spectacular things I NEVER could have envisioned, so darn quickly?

    A few weeks ago I was on Neil Patel Dot Com, them Forbes, and soon I’ll be on Virgin Dot Com. Yep, Richard Branson’s blog. No way in hades I could have envisioned each but I just stopped trying so hard, I stopped struggling like a flopping fish, I listened to my Guide, had loads of fun and outsourced the outcomes, being more full of appreciation for everything than ever, and all this stuff came together so darn fast.

    Note; it only took me a short 7 years to come to these realizations, LOL!

    Keep at it guys. VVG, Jeff and plenty of inspired folks will help to instill persistence in ya….just listen.

    Thanks JG, fabulous as always.

    Ryan

  • Kerin Freeman

    Thanks for sharing that, excellent story. I was always told I would amount to nothing by my parents – now I have two books published and have been a successful editor/proofreader for many years. I am now on my third and fourth book. Never give up, never let anyone tell you you can’t do it. Prove them wrong. Everyone has greatness within them

    • I’m so sorry to hear that, Kerin, and so glad you didn’t listen to them.

      • Kerin Freeman

        Hi Jeff, it’s fine because it made me stronger –

        people should never take onboard negative talk, you’re your own bright star. What doesn’t weaken you… Keep up the good work! :)

  • Perhaps it’s not the failure that helps you along the road to success but rather the reflection and self-examination that should occur after failure that provides better direction.

    The idea that a hidden force is guiding us all along that road doesn’t sit right with me though. I prefer to think that through this self-examination and contemplation, I am finding my own right path, not just drifting down it waiting for failure to set me back on the right path.

    Interesting story though, I very much appreciated reading it!

    • That’s a great point, Becky. You may be right. I wonder if it’s possible to be so reflective without the failure? It seems to me that the pain inherent to many failures forces us into a state of reflection that isn’t natural for most people.

      • I agree with that. It is not easy to look inside and be honest about what is really going on in there. Based on my readings and my own study, self-examination is extremely important for staying on track and even knowing the path to adhere to, but it sure is hard to do. Failure seems to be the perfect kick in the ass to make us do it. Those who don’t are just drifting and existing, certainly not living.

  • laura routh

    Thank you, Jeff, for a well written and inspiring post. When after graduating from college with a degree in nutrition and informing my husband at the time that all I wanted to do was stay home and make quilts, he laughed. I never did make those quilts, but later on after becoming a single mom with three kids, I began selling my handmade table linens at the local farmers market. I had dreamed about doing this for years, even doing the math calculations in my head regarding pricing etc. while out jogging or walking. It took getting laid off from a part time job to begin going down this road, one which although scary, allowed me to be home with my kids. And there were no babysitting costs involved. Now, I’m pursuing another dream, writing, and managing to accomplish one blog post a week since October of 2015. I still have a long way to go, but I believe in my idea, and I’m grateful for professionals like you who inspire me along the way.

  • David Mori

    “Vincent van Gogh led a life of madness, one with many starts and stops that looked as frenetic on the outside as they must have felt on the inside. Only during the final years of his short life was Vincent a professional artist, and even then, a tortured one ridiculed by others, even by his own mother.” – Love it !

    Haye vs De Mori Live

    Haye vs De Mori Live Stream

  • Sohma Rae Keys

    Bravo, Jeff! Your words have resonated with me more than any other contemporary writer. I LOVED “The Art of Work”.
    You have no idea how closely this article hits home for me. I am an artist with those same inner stirrings, love of nature and zeal for God. I too have been blessed with a plethora of obstacles. Your words give me a renewed hope and faith in my destiny in spite of my many recent ER visits, surgery and an acquaintance with levels of pain I never thought existed. Thank you for this timely reminder, Jeff.
    Sohma Rae

    • That means a lot to me, Sohma Rae. Thank you for sharing that. And it’s great to see you here in the comments again! It’s been a while.

      • Sohma Rae Keys

        I’m still going to send you a painting of mine in gratitude for the inspiration you have been. I just need some more recovery time. Looking forward to getting back with tribe writers !

  • Kelly Brown

    Hi Jeff, I enjoyed the post, learned more about the life of Van Gogh and about how failure can help you refocus. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  • As I read this it seem I could identify with Van Gogh because I was the same way. Looking at different careers to see which career path to take – first a teacher than nurse, than paralegal business owner, Sunday School Teacher, psychologist, singer public speaker…. and now writer.. each profession trial lead to really no where except to give me material to use in my writing.

    Out of all of these the one thing I really enjoy doing and it seems to be a repeated recurring thing is listening to others and try and help. But I am using all of these as I work to help others thru my writing…

  • I think one of the reasons I’ve failed at the search for my calling is because of fear. Fear of being judged by those I surround myself with. Fear that what I want to do is impractical. The fact that van Gogh was, as you mentioned, ridiculed by others even someone as close as his own mother both saddens me and inspires me to keep trying. Moving forward, I think that seeking out other outcasts who share the same outlooks is an important step towards my progress.

    Thank you for the article.

  • Chandi

    Hi Jeff, I love the way you see the world. The angle you take on Van Gogh’s life, the way you make it relevant for people today, is fascinating to me.

    I am a historian (with a focus on the Florentine Renaissance) and I often teach humanities and art history, focusing on all the great liberal arts, artists and thinkers in European history from ancient to 20th century. My training has thus far caused me to only focus academically on these topics. I reach a much smaller audience that way (basically the people in my classes.) But with this post of yours, I see an intriguing way to make my knowledge more accessible to a wider audience.

    I feel like you’re an artist as well as writer because it is so artistic the way you molded aspects of Van Gogh’s life into a story that resonates with a broad spectrum of online readers in today’s world.

    Bravo!

  • Wow, I can really relate to van Gogh. I feel the same: How can I be of use in the world? I know that God has called me to do something, something big, and I know He’s going to use me to touch lives, and in my small way, change the world. But at 18, with pretty much no resources to accomplish much, I find myself here, living with rejection, working on my writing, and waiting for my French impressionists.

    I also can relate to his ‘wandering’. I have several things on my plate, and between my music, my book, my attempts at becoming a freelancer, and the several other small projects, I probably seem crazy. But I know that every thing that happens is for a reason, and someday I’ll look back and see how every piece fit in perfectly. I look forward to that day.

    • N K

      Hey :-) ! Your words resonate with me so much! I was also like you in my teens, desperately looking for meaning, wanting to be of use to the world. Can’t tell you how much I struggled, with my family, with my own psychological issues, career… I actually found myself on the verge of suicide in mid 2014. Yet I always believed that God has a plan for me which they would reveal at the right moment. And you know what? They did! Suddenly everything started falling into place, and now I’m totally aware of my calling.
      You are so young, just hang in there. If you believe truly that you have a purpose in life, then you will surely find it. I realized mine at the age of 30! For some others it takes even longer. So don’t despair, trust yourself, trust God… Everything will fall into place when the time’s right. God Bless you :-) !!

      • Wow, thanks! I’m glad that you found your calling… There really is nothing so wonderful. I know God has called me to write, He just hasn’t placed me anywhere definite yet. Your words are encouraging :) God bless!

  • I didn’t study art – I probably should have – but thank you so much for diving into Van Gogh’s tortured life. It’s deeply sad but encouraging for those who are “struggling artists” like myself and so many people!

  • I see my life as failure after failure. When looking back, I think I was missing guidance. I left home and just followed the flow of life. My parents wanted me to do this and that; I was not given a choice nor did anyone cared to ask: what would you like to do? I am 42 now and only a few years ago I finally figured out what I was really passionate about. Only a year ago I decided what I wanted to do and learn: writing.

  • No one knows much about Vincent Van Gogh’s life and struggles. I personally discover it with this post. I always liked his painting without any idea of who he actually was. What touches me the most is the fact that his bro just sadly followed him in eternity …. which means that …. yes failure teaches us something but …. people surrounding and supporting us may be more affected by our life, successes and failures than we can imagine…. They may care about us much more than we can believe. We should take great care of them and protect them.

    • Chandi

      Why do you say “no one” knows much about him? As a historian, I am around art historians who know pretty much all there is to know about Van Gogh.

  • I didn’t know that Van Gogh was “called” to be a clergyman. Interesting how it led to his eventual artistic calling… And to think it all began when he started down a path. I suppose any path we take can lead us to our eventual calling. Great post!

  • Kirsten Johnson Samuel

    Great post, Jeff. A year ago I had the privilege of seeing Van Gogh’s display, alongside his contemporaries, at the Rijks Museum. Beautiful to observe the progression in his work. I found this post very timely and inspiring and loved getting more of Van Gogh’s background. Provoking thought for parents–are you encouraging your child’s genius or squelching it?

  • Daniela Rivera

    I think one of the most important statements here is how Van Gogh never stopped painting even though his work was considered rare and ignominious. Vincent Van Gogh knew that was what he was supposed to paint, because if he considered his work as good then it actually had to be good.
    Failure after failure, Van Gogh persevered and trusted that if he kept trying no matter what people said, his work would be useful. Moreover, his need of being useful would be satisfied. All of this makes a clear point: believing in yourself no matter the disadvantages in your way will take you to the fulfillment of your goals.