‘Dream of painting, then paint your dream’ – inspiration for entrepreneurs from Van Gogh

Einstein’s favourite habit was gedankenerfahrung, it’s when he’d close his eyes and imagined how physics worked in the real world, instead of formulas drawn on a chalkboard.

When he was 16 he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light – how it would travel and how it would bend? He contemplated gravity by imagining bowling balls and billiard balls competing for space on a trampoline surface.

Gedankenerfahrung means ‘thought experiment’, daydreaming. Imagination has nothing to do with physics, but Einstein’s imagination is what made him a genius physicist, connecting his math skills to his dreaming in a way that let him see what others could not.

Entrepreneurs have something of this too, outlier success comes from them going out of their way to be disruptive, to make people think differently. Likewise artists, thinking in pictures and images, using their imagination to navigate the human experience to present new ideas.

Vincent Van Gogh was one such artist, where fantasy and reality merged in some of his most enduring paintings. With his bright sunflowers, searing wheat fields and blazing yellow skies, Van Gogh was a fanatic about light, giving the world many of its most treasured paintings. His 1888 Sunflowers remains one of the most popular still life in the history of art.

But he was also enthralled with night time. The painter of the most audacious, crazy, passionate, frenzied, unleashed bursts of brushwork, may be more evident in his daylight paint­ings, but in paintings such as his iconic The Starry Night, painted while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy, his touch is more restrained and you really see his craftsmanship and endeavour.

Van Gogh’s was only an artist for the last decade of his life. Before painting pictures that would adorn the walls of the most celebrated museums, he tried (and failed) at three other careers. He spent the final years of his life traveling through Belgium, Holland, and France in pursuit of his artistic vision.

Alone in a studio or in the fields, Van Gogh’s discipline was as firm as his genius was unruly, and he taught himself all the elements of classical technique with pains­taking thoroughness. He had initially absorbed the dark palette of great Dutch painters such as Rembrandt. As an art student in Antwerp, he had the opportunity to see the work of contemporaries and frequent cafés and exhibitions.

There, having encountered young painters like Gauguin, as well as older artists such as Monet, the brighter colours and the expressive force he’d been searching for erupted. He painted feverishly. And then, just as he achieved a new mastery over brush and pigment, he lost control of his life. In a fit of hallucinations and anguish, he severed part of his ear and delivered it to a prostitute at a local brothel.

After neighbours petitioned the police, he was locked up in a hospital. From then on, the fits recurred unpredictably, and he spent most of the last two years of his life in asylums, painting what he could see through the bars of his window or from the surrounding gardens and fields.

Van Gogh never thought his paintings would become such stars in the art firmament. In 1890, less than two months before he ended his life with a pistol shot, he wrote to a Paris newspaper critic who had praised his work, It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things.

Van Gogh shot himself soon after painting The Starry Night and died two days later. Painted in June 1889, it depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy, just before sunrise, with the addition of an idealised village. Against the backdrop of this poignant biography, Van Gogh’s night pictures take on added significance, for it was to the night sky, and to the stars, that Van Gogh often looked for solace.

The night scenes captured his interest in mixing dreams and reality, observation and imagination. He lived at night. He didn’t sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, went to see friends, spent entire nights in cafés or meditated over the rich associations he saw in the night sky.

It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest. The Starry Night he considered a failed attempt at abstraction. Vincent didn’t live to know that in his reaching for the stars, he had created a masterpiece.

The Starry Night was painted in Van Gogh’s ground-floor studio in the asylum, a view which he painted variations of no fewer than twenty-one times, depicted at different times of day and under various weather conditions, including sunrise, moonrise, sunshine-filled days, overcast days, windy days, and one day with rain. The Starry Night is the only nocturne in the series of views.

Although he sold only one painting during his lifetime, his idiosyncratic, emotionally evocative style has continued to influence artists to the present day. His unstable, impulsive personal temperament became synonymous with the romantic image of the tortured artist, using gestural application of paint and symbolic colours to express subjective emotions.

Entrepreneurs know the value of being innovative and memorable like Van Gogh, unlocking new conversations and possibilities. Modern day entrepreneurial behaviours mirror Van Gogh’s, so what we can learn from his attitude and approach to his art that will guide us in our startup thinking? Here are my thoughts, with quotes from Van Gogh to illustrate his entrepreneurial attitudes.

Open mindedness One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with. Van Gogh’s work was always drawn from a huge range of influences. His uniqueness was often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, with a prowess for producing something entirely his own, throwing ideas together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of entrepreneurs.

Restlessness For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. Van Gogh never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra. At the height of the success he pressed the eject button, and re-emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. Van Gogh was a thinker, hungry for new experiences to stimulate his creativity. Socialising your own startup idea with other entrepreneurs will help shape, inform and improve your thinking. Never miss the opportunity for gaining and sharing insight.

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination I dream of painting and then I paint my dream. Reality, plus a sprinkle of imagination and intuition, turns that which seems impossible into something that is possible. If you can imagine it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it by asking yourself the question, ‘What if?’ Then go do.

The ability to follow your gut instincts as an entrepreneur is vital to the creation process and carving out your own niche. Steve Jobs followed his instincts to create the iPhone as Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.

You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? You are what you are! Ignore the naysayers, your startup is your road of self-discovery. Listen to your inner voice and stand up tall knowing who you are. Like Van Gogh, have ambition that reaches way beyond your current horizon.

Your audience or customers are craving the unexpected – give it to them I hope to make something good one day. I haven’t yet, but I am pursuing it and fighting for it. They want to be wowed. Why not come up with some novel, out of the box ideas like Van Gogh did, and give them a little clue about the depth of your uniqueness?

The artist can easily be pulled into copying what is ‘trendy’, but the best artist and entrepreneurs don’t copy, they produce outside of the norm. The most successful aren’t trying to think outside the proverbial box, they no longer see ‘the box’ as they aren’t trying to copy, they are interested in creating something new and improving upon what has already been done.

Be bold and experiment If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced When a canvas (or any startup venture) starts, the learning and journey are as important as the end result. You should always experiment, prototype and be thoughtful about the whole process. Look to the future, but start with the small steps today. Van Gogh left many unfinished canvases, which may not have been true reflections of his intended meaning, but they added to his thinking.

Value critique There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke. Being different and disruptive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to other opinions. Artists are accustomed to hearing direct critique, incorporating feedback into their work, and defending their choices.

Practicing accepting critique can vastly improve not only your products but your entire startup process. This is what stands at the basis of the Lean Startup Method — get feedback, iterate, improve and continue with speed in order to one day get it right.

Take pride in your work Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul. Van Gogh strove for perfection, to create something that resonated with his identity, a personal statement about himself. The products, content, and service you provide from your startup should be a reflection of yourself. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t settle for ‘good enough’. Van Gogh told other artists to Make sure it’s so good it doesn’t die with you, and you can apply that to any product or service.

Keep working – do it for yourself One must work and dare if one really wants to live. Don’t let anyone’s opinion of your work stop you from doing what you are so driven to do. The work will evolve. Don’t ever try to deliberately force your work to fit the desires of the masses. First and foremost, focus on your practice. Second, make sure you have a strong, cohesive body of work. Third, make your presence known.

Prioritise consistency over heroic efforts For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together People often assume that art is a part-time muse-fuelled blitz, pouring out genius. But that’s simply not the case. Though inspiration can suddenly strike, turning it into a tangible finished product is a matter of sustained effort.

It’s getting up every day and doing the work, taking thousands of fresh touches and refreshes alongside the productive mornings. It’s the same for your startup, it’s a combination of inspiration and sheer hard work.

Both the artist and entrepreneur must get their ideas and products into the marketplace and into the hands of customers. We don’t know the artist who kept their art at home hidden away. The same is true of entrepreneurs who we admire – they got out of the building and their ideas into the hands of customers.

For Van Gogh, it ended in tragedy at the young age of 37 with a self-induced gunshot to the abdomen. During his life, Van Gogh produced some of the most revolutionary works of art the world has ever known. What’s holding your entrepreneurial dream? Dream of painting and then paint your dream.

Lessons in entrepreneurship from the poetry of John Cooper Clarke & Rudyard Kipling

Poetry, for me, is not something to be read quietly in a corner and reflected upon. It is always a phonetic medium, every time. At school, we had to memorise it. This included all twenty stanzas of The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It was a compendium, unbelievably long, and we were often called upon to stand up and recite selected verses to the rest of the class from memory. That brought home the fact that poetry should be heard first.

I’ve recently been revisiting the work of Salford born ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke. Now aged seventy, with nine albums behind him, his current tour is no different to that when I saw him in 1979, a set characterised by lively, rapid-fire renditions of his observational poems performed a cappella.

Known as ‘the bard of Salford’, he usually refers to himself on stage as Johnny Clarke, the name behind the hairstyle.  He has a huge talent, kind heart and sparkling wit. He’s the godfather of British performance poetry, a poet who writes about darkness and decay but makes people laugh, a human cartoon, a gentleman punk, a man who has stayed exactly the same for over forty years but never grown stale.

John Cooper Clarke uses words of anger, humour and disdain in equal measure. He’s the real deal, funny and caustic, the velvet voice of discontent. His anarchic punk poetry has thrilled people for decades and his no nonsense approach to his work and life in general has held appeal for many years. Long may his slender frame and spiky top produce words and deeds that keep us on our toes and alive to the wonders of the world.

His last collection titled The Luckiest Guy Alive contained forty poems and amply demonstrates that his scabrous wit and vivid way with words remains untamed. His writing is guided by a desire to communicate his thoughts on our shared humanity.

Learning poetry by heart at school, while you won’t understand it at the time, it may sneak up on you thirty years later. Poetry is the shortest possible way of saying something that needs saying. There’s something to cherish in the words, a thought that the work itself will outlast us all.

One of my favourite poems is If, written by the English poet and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Rudyard Kipling. This poem has always been a stand out piece of writing for me, I think it’s inspirational not only for startup leaders and entrepreneurs, but for all people who want to maximise their potential and live life to the fullest.

The poem contains mottos and maxims for life. The poem is also a blueprint for personal integrity, behaviour and self-development. If is perhaps even more relevant today than when Kipling wrote it, as an ethos and a personal philosophy.

Kipling’s life was one replete with trials, hardships, and sorrows, but time and again he overcame them. This poem, which is really one long single sentence, encapsulates the lessons he learned. It is believed that he wrote If as four, eight-line stanzas of advice to his son, John,

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

 

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;

If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

So what makes Kipling’s If, the ultimate entrepreneur’s poem? This is an inspirational poem that expresses various ways in which you can rise above adversity that we will almost face at some point in one’s startup life. Throughout the poem, Kipling offers multiple scenarios, contrasting both positive and negative, along with a glimpse into how one should conduct oneself.

The poem has an almost mathematical proof about it with its if-then scenario. Kipling leaves the then until the final two lines, revealing that if he or she is able to do all that was just mentioned, he or she will not only have the world at his or her fingertips, but he or she will also be a ‘Man’ – as it’s written for his son John, it’s heartfelt fatherly advice.

Kipling keeps a positive and upbeat tone throughout, informing the reader what to do in order to be a successful person in life. The poem reads like one continuous thought. I read it as a magnificent tribute to many  great virtues – staying composed under stress, remaining humble when victorious, never despairing when defeated, and always retaining honour and authenticity.

So let’s look at a few of the verses and their relevance to startup founders.

Trust in yourself

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.

This reminds me of one of my favourite business quotes, from former CEO of Netscape Jim Barksdale: If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.  In a startup, we will always have doubters and critics in all that we do. Listen to them because someone will be valid observations, but also have confidence in yourself, don’t fold, stay composed when under pressure. So, on the same hand, take constructive criticism to heart, without being too self-righteous.

Keep a balanced mindset and outlook

Kipling reminds us of the importance of maintaining a level head:

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master; If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same;

It points to the relationship between inspiration and desperation, which we’ve all faced in our startup ventures. When you are under pressure, the things that are best and worst about people and business, come to the fore. We’ve all been there. Pushed a bit too far, been a bit too snappy. Truth is that these things happen to us all but that’s not the interesting part; it’s the response that really does matter.

Kipling urges us to not follow the crowd, but be our own thinkers and stand firm in our own beliefs and values. He reminds us there are answers we may not have, and to keep an open mind to learning. Kipling urges us to dream and think, but to not get so caught up in dreams and thoughts that we lose our grasp on reality.

Just be

This is my favourite lesson of the poem. To treat triumph and disaster as the same imposter is to learn how to just be. Startup life is a journey of ups and downs. I’ve learned that the founder who can embrace all volatility and just ‘be’ has the most peace in their entrepreneurial journey.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings; And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss; And lose, and start again at your beginnings; And never breathe a word about your loss;

Kipling demonstrates here the importance of being able to pick oneself up and start again if we fail. We must always be prepared to start again, and be willing to forget about the loss and not dwell on it.

Endurance is a great virtue

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew; To serve your turn long after they are gone; And so hold on where there is nothing in you; Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

These lines are particularly powerful. All entrepreneurs must endure, even if that feels both physically and emotionally impossible. It is also worth noting the capitalisation of Will. Perhaps Kipling wanted to emphasise the resilience of the human spirit by making it a power that is separate from the person who possesses it?

Craft the outcome to your journey

The fourth and final stanza reveals the consequence of doing all of these ifs, but not before Kipling presents us with three more scenarios. The first one deals with how to treat others, regardless of their station in life. Maintaining your honour and authenticity is a standout human quality, treating everyone with respect and open-handedness will take you far.

Take risks. Do what you love. Lead your startup from the front. Do it! Life is too short for dogma, and being trapped living a life you don’t enjoy. It’s easy to let fame and success get to our heads, but Kipling urges us to stay grounded and to remember where we came from.

Life is short. We only have a finite time here on earth – the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of distance run – and should use it as best as we can. Kipling tells us to never give up or waste even a single second of time. If you are given a minute, make sure you use all sixty seconds of it.

Finally, in the last two lines, the outcome of abiding by all of these thoughts is revealed:

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

For me, John Cooper Clarke joins Kipling for his art of writing that contain timeless lessons that stays relevant. In fact, I believe these writings and lessons are not just enjoyable, but vital, in that we can reflect on our own situation, find inspiration, and stay grounded.

With our technology advancements, continual globalisation, and the dawn of artificial intelligence, it’s good to be reminded at the end of the day that we must learn to enjoy life for all that it is, and remember life lessons can be captured in poetry, and not just focus on the frenzy of our startup endeavours.

While it’s beneficial to have a work rhythm, don’t let your habits turn into mindless routines. When this happens, you can fall into the doldrums, where you operate on autopilot and stop thinking creatively. Poetry will help you develop a more satisfying and more successful work life.

That is because as entrepreneurs, like poets, we benefit greatly from studying our craft and continuously reflecting on how we’re engaging with our work, colleagues and our surroundings. Even if you have little experience with creative writing, I encourage you to read poetry, it will refresh your perspectives, thinking and reinvigorate and reinspire your daily work habits.