Vincent Van Gogh and the Four Seasons

Today I went to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria called Van Gogh and the four seasons. Tickets were moderately priced, the queue took over an hour, the audio guide was useless and it was incredibly crowded. Despite it all it has been the best experience I’ve ever had in an art gallery.

I met a girl in the queue who I thought was Portuguese but she was from Geelong. I saw her eyes light up looking at me but together I just felt we were jaded. We parted ways. A man cut in right near the front of the line but did it so smoothly I must not have felt to say anything. I regret that.

I was shocked that the paintings were just there, unprotected. I’m very grateful for that fact though. It felt intimate. They did seem utterly sublime. Well preserved too. I thought they were brooding but that was just the winter section. They all have a certain headiness to them though, despite being quite tame by today’s standards. Subtlety. Van Gogh’s soul. It takes a heady individual to take Impressionism and leap forward into something else, stroke by stroke.

Despite the crowded vibe the exhibition just got better and better. I looked at every painting. Slower than average but not super slow. It seemed the energy in the crowd improved with every successive painting. Never thought I’d see the day. True progress and the mandate of the arts. Everyone witnessing the same sublimity. Many trying to describe it properly. It’s a funny thing like that, visual art, the way it doesn’t cohere well with language in our soul. Or maybe it does for some people I don’t know.

It was too crowded for me to deeply understand the four seasons theme beyond a mere grouping of the paintings. Nor was I able to grasp the apparent Japanese influence. That’s ok. I’m glad someone tried to put it in a meaningful context. However the artist’s life was much darker than “and the four seasons” suggests.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), like most great Europeans of the past was born into an upper middle class family. With severe mental health issues, he only started painting in 1881, at the age of 28. In the next decade or so he would produce a remarkable 2,100 works. Averaging one work between every one and two days. An archetypal study in Mastery.

He was closest with his younger brother, Theo. As someone with a younger brother, I feel a lot of empathy for the man. It makes me feel what his family life was like.

He was bedevilled by depression and psychotic episodes. Despite this he ate poorly and drank excessively. This no doubt contributed to him infamously severing his own ear. His work was rather unappreciated during his lifetime and he lived in poverty. He shot himself in the chest with a pistol at age 37; dying two days later in his brother’s arms. He epitomises the tortured but genius artist.

He is said to be of the post-impressionist movement. His work is characterised by bold colours and expressive brushwork. He began to be appreciated after his death, as his work profoundly influenced the modern movement. This list has him ranked as the second greatest painter of all time.

Resistance and Plateaus

A mastery path has its own inherent value. To speak only of the literal; it is the most straightforward way to be a leader in a field or to create something of superior quality. It will maximise the total time spent in flow state throughout your life. To speak more intuitively, however, we all sense that it involves a subtle deepening of one’s character, a shift in one’s core identity.

In the human experience, mastering a skillset offers unique challenges and benefits. I tend to see it like a game that all humans (and perhaps other animals too) can play. It has a private but also a public component. It’s an important thread in the art of living.

Part of the reason that it’s so valuable is that it exercises various character strengths as well as the skillset itself. It presents an opportunity for “self-mastery”, presenting a unique opportunity to become something bigger and stronger inside. Something more actualised and simultaneously more wise and grounded. Certainly more confident and apt to be a leader.

mastery curveTo my great anguish, I’ve always been a jack of all trades yet a master of none. Often telling people that I’m more of a “generalist”. Don’t misunderstand me: there is value in being a generalist, especially for a writer. There are serious drawbacks to only ever being a generalist in life though.

I’d like to share a little story about the career path I’m currently on since it pertains to the mastery path and I feel that it will be instructive.

I’ve been working with Salesforce for almost exactly 1 year. It pays the bills and I’m even self-employed which is cool. I’m just starting to get to a point of adeptness. Recently though, for a few weeks, I had this feeling in my gut. I just wanted to change to something else. I wanted to be a programmer instead for various reasons.

Salesforce seemed boring and trivial, made-up, arbitrary. Not worthy of my intellectual energy. I felt useless at work and unmotivated. Not built for it. I very nearly gave up, and probably would have if I didn’t need to pay the bills.

What I have since realised though is that this was a plateau (the longest plateau I’ve ever seen mind you). In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield defines something called “resistance”. Resistance is a self-defeating, emotional hindrance to stop you doing what will lift you higher. My depressed phase turned out to be resistance: because I’ve come bursting out the other side, leaving it all behind. Importantly, I am once again excited about working with Salesforce and continuing to improve. I feel more competent than ever (which is what makes it a plateau).

If I had followed those instincts to change because I was getting bored with something I was good at, then I would have lost out on a crucial opportunity. I’ve found the single most rewarding thing has been a sense of deepening of character and self-efficacy. There’s a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction that wasn’t there before, and it’s as if nothing could ever take it away. All this by simply continuing to work and riding out that plateau.

There may come a time where you feel like giving up on your path, for whatever reason. I don’t deny that sometimes changing course is the best course of action. I’m a huge advocate of, in the long run, spending your time doing what you enjoy most. As well as maximising happiness, this is in large part because you’re more likely to stay with it and ultimately reap the benefits of reaching a high level of proficiency. I just want you to understand from my story that there is inherent value in riding out a plateau, regardless of the skillset.

Competency Versus Accreditation

There is an often encountered but rarely spoken phenomenon in society. The dichotomy of competency and accreditation. Perhaps you have encountered this distinction at some point when you realised that generally certificates don’t get you hired but experience does. Yet accreditation lends prestige and well, accredits.
All my life I’ve wanted to get a black belt in a martial art. A few years ago I began Wing Chun because I liked Bruce Lee and its principled approach to fighting appealed to me. It was the thinking man’s martial art. And it only took 3 years to achieve a black sash which is very convenient for someone who likes to travel.
However, I had irreconcilable differences with the school. They were completely stuck in their habits year after a year and the whole place seemed completely numb in the head. They acted as if there was no revolution since mixed martial arts and refused to acknowledge any form of grappling or ground fighting at all. There was also a culture of misinformation, groupthink and rudeness. It was taboo to address reality. I gave up by the time I reached blue sash level – I simply couldn’t put up with it for another 18 months.
In my opinion, the premier martial art of today is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It’s dynamic, scientific and effective. Smaller people can use it to overcome larger people. You don’t get brain trauma from doing it. It’s spreading like wild fire while martial arts like Wing Chun and Aikido are walling themselves off and making ever more excuses. They’re becoming more niche in their value proposition. To me, a BJJ black belt represents elite warrior status in the modern day. The problem is that it takes 10 years of dedicated training to achieve it. It takes 2 whole years just to lose your white belt. As someone that wants to travel this is a difficult situation: it might be 20 years before I get a black belt.
This exorbitant time frame made me reluctantly shake my head. It was all about the black belt; that was the goal. You need to articulate a goal right? That’s what the self-help literature says. However, I’m now starting to see that there aren’t really any other graded martial arts of the same quality and it is better to learn the best art than to learn a questionable one. I have mentally decided to start learning BJJ. However in order to reach that decision I had to very much let go of the idea of getting black belt: It’s too far away to be motivating. That prestigious and accredited idea that is so easily incorporated into one’s identity is gone.
I’ve discovered that what necessarily replaces accreditation as a motivator is competency. Practising the art. Being able to kick someone’s ass if you both end up on the ground. Seems like a bit of a stupid thing to spend 10 years on, frankly.
Goals are a fact of life though. The question remains: what goal is both motivating and able to be articulated? If the basic drive is to be able to kick some ass and to achieve mastery of a high-quality art, what goal satisfactorily advocates for this? Timothy Ferriss likes phrasing goals in terms of doing rather than being. For example being able to kick the ass of someone bigger than you in ground fighting is a good goal instead of a black belt. Or knowing what to do in every situation and being able to do it. Or mastering the curricula of the program.
Phrased like this goals lack the prestigious simplicity, the cleanness, the symbolic quality which is easily relayed to others or able to be identified with. They make you think of actually grappling with people rather than having and being something for life. They make you smell sweat and feel social anxiety. They have a visceral realness to them. They focus the mind on competency rather than accreditation. They prime you to focus on your art or skill set rather than rocking up and doing just enough for long enough.
Another example of competency versus accreditation is in learning a foreign language. As someone who has studied Mandarin and likes to have goals; one of my goals over the years has been to achieve HSK6. This is the highest level of the Chinese government administered Chinese language proficiency accreditation. If you have HSK6 you know about 5,000 words and have the macro skills to effectively engage in communication with them.
Just like a black belt HSK can be quickly whipped out mid conversation or resume. You can put it on your wall to remind yourself that other white people aren’t as dedicated or wonderful as you. However, it lures the awareness away from communication itself. The mind will get you that certificate because that is what it does with goals, but actually being able to talk with a Chinese person after getting it will be a coincidence. How many hours would you spend actually communicating in your journey to get it?
These are two examples of a broader phenomenon which is often found wherever there is a skill set and a demand for accreditation in that skill set. What others can you think of in your own life? What accreditation have you been procrastinating getting which would take you to the next level and add to your prestige? Where are you merely seeking accreditation when it would be better to focus on the skills which underpin it? Do you have a deficit in theory or practise?

Quality Is Always a Result of Intelligent Effort 

“Quality is never the result of an accident; it always the result of intelligent effort”

– John Ruskin

I have an app called DailyQuote which gives you a motivational quote every day. Although I’ve grown disillusioned with the value of such quotes, I do believe they are a good writing prompt. This above quote by John Ruskin is today’s quote.
I like John Ruskin, especially his work “On art and life”. He delves into the hidden meaning of things such as gothic architecture and rust. It made a real sensual impact on me. I can still feel what gothic church spires are all about and the inner life that they sprung from.
Most quotes weren’t originally meant to be quotes. Rather, they came as just one part of a literary work or a speech. They were simply one idea or sentiment among many and often thus were intended to rest on the preceding development. I often find that these quotes are woefully divorced from their original context and meaning. They are presented as a general truth or advice that stands alone, and thus they become like a second meaning unintended by the author. I doubt many authors would mind being quoted, though.
Take Winston Churchill’s famous words: “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. This is often found completely divorced from the context they were said and is taken instead for a general truth or wisdom. An epigram. What he was trying to do was inspire his people to beat the Nazis. He wasn’t trying to give advice to people who are going through a tough time generally.
To truly understand the quote by John Ruskin we have to know where it came from and I feel stupid for having come this far without being able to tell you.
“Quality is never the result of an accident”. Let’s unpack this. Firstly, what is quality? Is it really true that quality is never the result of an accident? The dictionary says that quality is the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind, its degree of excellence. So the quote means that something that’s better than others of its kind never came by accident? The only exceptions I can seem to think of are genetics and the domain of love and relationships.
Arguably there is an intelligent effort involved in genetics by the parents. On some level we’re all trying to apply intelligent effort to make ourselves more appropriate to a partner but sometimes love seems to preempt or even spurn intelligent effort to obtain it, preferring to emerge by accident. Does quality apply to love, though? Is some love better than other similar loves? Comparing like this doesn’t seem to sit right; I believe that intensity is a better means of considering love than quality since it is a subjective feeling. However, I believe the concept of quality would aptly apply to long term relationships. For example, some marriages are better than others. And marriages do indeed seem to require intelligent effort to improve so Ruskin’s quote holds water thus far.
Is quality always the result of intelligent effort though? Well, intuition is a form of unconscious intelligence, so if you’re thinking about the artist that seems to do so very naturally and effortlessly let me stop you right there. Learning any art form most certainly requires effort in some degree.
It seems to me that quality isn’t about inventing something, but rather making an existing thing better. If you set out to make something specific that has already been invented you know what you’re making. You must learn from people before you. I don’t believe the genius exists that can truly make something better than seasoned professionals at the drop of a hat, without the intelligent effort of learning the art form. We simply need to learn from those who have made progress before us and that takes time and energy. Maybe among children but what child can produce something better than a professional adult without intelligent effort?
On the other hand creating something entirely new may be done seemingly without any effort; simply by having the idea come to you.
I can conclude that Ruskin was indeed stating a universal truth. A basic fact about quality. This is useful because we can assume that if we want to improve the quality of something be it good, service or organisation: we know that intelligent effort is required. Given that other people also will be applying intelligent effort and quality is a relative term, we can also conclude that barring exceptional talent we must generally apply more intelligent effort than others if we wish to produce a higher quality.

There’s a book called “Talent is overrated” by Geoff Colvin. His thesis is that something called “deliberate practice” is what determines the winners in their respective fields from the also-rans. I’m struck by the similarity between Ruskin’s idea of intelligent effort and Colvin’s idea of deliberate practice. In essence, they both mean to work but work smart.