In his excellent book Range, David Epstein tells the story of a boy who grew up in the Netherlands. He liked wandering around, sitting for hours watching a bird’s nest, and following water bugs on their commutes across a brook. He was also obsessed with collecting beetles.
At thirteen he went away from home for schooling, and spent his free time memorising poetry. But he didn’t enjoy living with strangers, so he left school just before he turned fifteen, and for the next sixteen months he did little other than take long nature walks.
His uncle, who was an art dealer, hired him, and by twenty he was dealing with clients and travelling abroad on sales trips. When he was starting to feel he had found his true calling, he was transferred to London and then to Paris. He loved selling art, but he didn’t have the charm of a salesperson and disliked bargaining, and thus wasn’t allowed to deal directly with clients any more.
France was amidst an artistic revolution when he arrived, but none of it made any impact on him. He found his calling in religion instead. When he was finally dismissed from the dealership, he went to work as an assistant teacher at a boarding school in England. The job wasn’t fancy, so he got another one before deciding to become a missionary in South America.
After his parents talked him out of it, his father got him a job at a local book store. After the store burned down, he decided to follow his father’s footsteps and become a pastor. His new goal was to get enrolled in a university so that he could train as a pastor. But Latin and Greek didn’t come naturally to him. Even though he pushed hard, he floundered in his studies.
Nearing his twenty-fifth birthday, when the economic revolution had made certain citizens wealthy, while others were thrust into abject poverty, he decided to forsake university to spread the word of god by giving sermons instead. He opted for a shorter course, but failed the program since he wasn’t good at giving succinct, punchy sermons.
Nobody could stop him from preaching, but people found him odd, and the children did not listen. He was twenty-seven, and despondent. After a decade of being a student, an art dealer, a teacher, a bookseller, a prospective pastor, and a missionary, he had failed spectacularly in every path he tried.
His brothers suggested he try carpentry, or become a barber. His sister thought he would make a fine baker. He was an insatiable reader, so perhaps a librarian. But he turned his energy on the last thing he could think of.
As a kid, when he tried to freehand sketch the family cat, he proved such a deficient draftsman that he destroyed the picture and refused to try ever again. Until now.
He made brief attempts at formal training in the coming years, but he struggled badly. His former art-dealer uncle, now an esteemed personality, pronounced his drawings unworthy to be put up for sale.
When he was nearly thirty-three, he enrolled in art school alongside students a decade younger, but lasted only a few weeks. He entered the class drawing competition, and the judges suggested he revert to a beginner’s class with ten-year-olds.
While he continued to paint, he shifted from one artistic passion to another. On one day he felt true artists only painted realistic figures, and then when his figures came out poorly, the next day true artists only cared for landscapes. One day he strived for realism, another for pure expression. This week art was a medium for declaring religious devotion, next week such concerns encumbered pure creation. One year he decided all true art consisted only of shades of black and grey, and then later that vibrant colour was the real pearl inside the artist’s shell. Each time he fell fully in love, and then just as fully and quickly he backed out.
Eventually he forsook the goal of ever becoming a master draftsman, and one by one left behind all of the styles he had previously claimed to be critical, but at which he had failed. He emerged with a new art in this process, one laden with no formality other than to capture something infinite.
He wanted to make art that anyone could understand, not haughty works for those with privileged training. Instead of relying on live models to copy, he wanted to make art through his mind’s eye.
One evening, he looked out his bedroom window toward the rolling hills in the distance and watched the sky pass for hours, just like he had done as a kid. When he picked up the brush, his imagination transformed a nearby town into a tiny village, its towering church to a humble chapel. The dark green cypress tree in the foreground became massive, winding up the canvas like seaweed in the swirling rhythm of the night sky.
It is a myth that Vincent van Gogh died in anonymity. He become the talk of Paris when a review cast him as a revolutionary months before he died. Claude Monet, the dean of impressionism declared Van Gogh’s work the cream of an annual exhibition. Adjusted for inflation, four of Van Gogh’s paintings have sold for more than $100 million, and they weren’t even his most famous ones.
Unlike most biographies, Van Gogh’s life doesn’t follow a definite narrative. There’s no heavenly calling, a spark of genius in early childhood, or a straight-forward trajectory. Instead, like all of us, there’s a lot of bouncing around with numerous dead ends.
Had he died in obscurity, anybody would have judged him as fickle-minded and directionless; and they wouldn’t entirely be wrong. But what they don’t understand is that’s precisely how you find your true calling, or in better words, your Match Quality.
Match quality is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities. Continuous exploration combined with a late start (instead of a head start) gives you enough room to find your match quality in this wicked world. If you are lucky, you find it soon, but to be honest, it takes time.
Paul Gauguin, who like Van Gogh also cracked the $100 million barrier, became a full-time artist at the age of thirty-five. JK Rowling was an unemployed single mother on welfare in her thirties before Harry Potter happened. She was “set free” by failure to try the work that better matched her talents and interests.
Most of us aren’t very good at what we do because we settle too early. And once we settle, we don’t switch. That’s not really a smart way to make a career, or in better words, find our calling.
Exploration, as most people don’t understand, is not a whimsical pastime; it plays a central role is our overall success and satisfaction. To explore means trying multiple things. Trying multiple things means quitting one thing and switching to another.
Winston Churchill’s, “Never give in, never, never, never, never” is an oft-quoted trope. But the end of the sentence is always left out: “except to convictions of honour and good sense.” As much as common wisdom would disagree, in the long run (and in good sense), quitters are the winners.