Thursday, 21 January 2010

Abdicate what you cannot demonstrate

"I am leaving behind everything that is artificial," announced Paul Gaugin to his friends when he was 43 years old. "I have decided to go back to nature and devote the rest of my life to painting."

Gauguin left Europe for Central America and later moved to an island in the South Pacific where he produced a series of paintings to which no one paid much attention.

Destitute and ignored by the public, Gaugin died in 1903, when he was only 55 years old. Long after his death, critics recognized him as a genius. Nowadays, each of his paintings is worth millions.

Paul Gaugin's biography is the quintessential story of the unrecognised artist living in miserable conditions. Disillusioned by his lack of success, he became an alcoholic, an aspect that must have contributed to shortening his life.

I do like Paul Gaugin's paintings, although they don't belong to my favourites. I will leave to art critics the job of praising Gaugin's work, since for me, this is not the lesson to be drawn from the story. My point is that Paul Gaugin made a mistake.

His was the kind of huge error that is often portrayed as heroic sacrifice. The fact is that nobody needs to ruin his life in order to become a great painter, inventor, musician, or entrepreneur.

Do you think that Gaugin would have lived longer if he had stayed in Europe and worked further at his job? Certainly, since he was a stockbroker. Would he had produced such great paintings if he had devoted just his evenings and weekends to art? In my view, that's most likely.

"Paul, your idea of leaving everything behind is pure nonsense," I would have told Gaugin if I had been one of his friends. "There are better ways to do things." I guess that he might have been curious to hear my advice, so here it is.

1. For succeeding in art, like in any other field, persistence plays a much bigger role than talent. A little every day amounts to a lot in the long term.

2. Extraordinary skill and expertise are the result of learning from a long series of failures. Take your time to make mistakes.

3. Giving up something in exchange of nothing is counter-productive. Advance slowly and make each step worthwhile.

4. Innovation in art, business, or philosophy needs a long time to catch the public's attention. You need to be both relentless and realistic.

5. Instead of wasting time complaining, devote your efforts to promoting your work. Flawless marketing comes no easier that perfect art.

Be patient. Build your pyramid stone by stone. One day, your monument will be so high that no one will be able to ignore it. Forget questionable ideas that lead to uncertain results.

Go for the gold. Persistence and patience work in most cases. Giving up everything and throwing yourself to the wolves is not a good approach. When you are faced with unproven ideas, follow my formula: abdicate what you cannot demonstrate.


[Image by freeparking under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]