Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
— Howard Thurman
We all long to find work that brings us joy, satisfaction, and financial provision. Work that is satisfying to us and needed by others. The path toward this work is full of ups and downs, hopes and frustrations. Hope, when it seems like we are making progress. Frustration, when productivity and money are pressed upon us as greater values than finding work which brings us alive.
This is the dilemma Vincent Van Gogh found himself in during his twenties. In Irving Stone’s beautiful, fictional biography of Van Gogh titled Lust for Life, he gets at the heart of this universal struggle.
The book opens with Vincent in his early twenties, as a successful art dealer in London. He is secretly suppressing his frustration, though, over the fact that his clients have no eye for good art. He is motivated to go on, however, so he can establish himself and propose to the woman he loves.
But things quickly deteriorate after a failed proposal, and his motivation wanes. He starts being honest with customers about their lack of taste and after a period of sliding sales the owner confronts him. Vincent replies, “Then tell me how a man can justify himself for spending his one and only life selling very bad pictures to very stupid people?”
Vincent eventually leaves the art dealer and goes from bookshop clerk to theological student in a short span of time, in hopes of finding work that brings him alive.
During his theological studies it eventually becomes clear he is not fit for formal training, considering the amount of time he needs to devote to studying just to keep up.
He decides to discuss this with Mendes, his tutor, during one of their walks. At one point, “after a few blocks [they] passed Rembrandt’s old home in the Zeestraat.” Mendes remarks, “He died in poverty and disgrace,” referring to Rembrandt. This provokes a conversation between the two that deeply affects Vincent’s path:
“He didn’t die unhappy, though,” said Vincent.
“No,” replied Mendes, “he had expressed himself fully and he knew the worth of what he had done. He was the only one in his time who did.”
“Then did that make it all right with him, the fact that he knew? Suppose he had been wrong? What if the world had been right in neglecting him?”
“What the world thought made little difference. Rembrandt had to paint. Whether he painted well or badly didn’t matter; painting was the stuff that held him together as a man. The chief value of art, Vincent, lies in the expression it gives to the artist. Rembrandt fulfilled what he knew to be his life purpose; that justified him. Even if his work had been worthless, he would have been a thousand times more successful than if he had put down his desire and become the richest merchant in Amsterdam.”
“You can never be sure about anything for all time… You can only have the courage and strength to do what you think is right. It may turn out to be wrong, but you will at least have done it, and that is the important thing.”
“Many times in your life you may think you are failing, but ultimately you will express yourself and that expression will justify your life.”
Finding what brings us alive is hard work. It is difficult to tune-out other voices and tune-in to our intuition. Especially when faced with failure along the way or that we can’t make a living immediately from the thing we love. We may try many different things early in life, none of which “takes off.” Often we chastise ourselves for these “failures,” or that we aren’t more established in our career by a certain age.
Mendes’ perspective is helpful, though, because — if adopted — it frees us to pursue our passions and ideas, trusting that the important thing is merely to do them. And as we do them, our path will appear in front of us. It is only important to know what the very next step is.
There are no right decisions on this journey. Every choice, every “failure” takes us closer.
The important thing is to keep going. If Van Gogh had given up when people told him he had no natural talent, or that he would never be an artist — which happened again and again — the world would be deprived of some of the greatest art that’s ever been created.
He pressed on through relentless poverty, gnawing stomach aches, rejection both professionally and personally, all for the sake of that which brought him alive. He listened to that inner voice which kept saying, Keep going. It is not in vain.
We always know which is the best road to follow, but we follow only the road that we have become accustomed to… The only way we can rescue our dreams is by being generous with ourselves.