Defined by Failure

You have probably heard the name Vincent Van Gogh. You’d certainly recognize some of his paintings. He’s now almost universally lauded as one of the most famous, influential and compelling figures in western art history.

But during nearly his entire adult life, he was known as an abject failure by almost everyone who knew him, including his family.

I’ve recently been reading a marvelous (albeit long) biography of Van Gogh, and here is just a tip-of-the-iceberg list I’ve gathered of some of his failures:

  • He never finished any form of formal education & dropped out of boarding school
  • He dropped out of art school at least twice
  • He was unceremoniously fired from nearly every job he undertook
  • He burned out in less than a year as a teacher
  • He tried to study theology but failed his entrance exam
  • He failed spectacularly as a pastor and theologian
  • He saw zero converts as a missionary and evangelist
  • He failed as an art dealer and book seller
  • He spent much of his 20s homeless, hungry, or penniless, and often all three
  • He lived most of his adult life lonely and depressed
  • He was rejected by his family
  • He was ridiculed by his successful art-dealer uncles
  • His father tried to commit him to an asylum
  • He was rejected by nearly every woman he had any interest in
  • His drawings were ridiculed as elementary-level and uninspired
  • His friends–when he had them–described his personality as difficult, depressing, and tedious
  • His art “career” had no success or recognition for eight years
  • No paintings–not even those that would later become recognized as masterpieces–were ever recognized as such during Van Gogh’s life.

How did such a failure of a man become one of the most celebrated artists in Western art history? How could a man literally defined by disappointment ever be seen as anything but that?

To me, the key lies in his many failures. Van Gogh obsessively pulled from his dark past and worst failures to create his masterpieces. Van Gogh himself described his work as expressing “the terrible passions of humanity.” His art has been described as emotional, brooding, bold, and dramatic, a window into the human condition. He regularly took everyday subjects and transformed them into masterpieces. His first major painting was a darkly colored piece depicting a family eating potatoes. Who does that? Van Gogh did, in fact. And he could because he spent a good part of his twenties homeless and subsisting on frost-bitten potatoes, in an incredibly poor coal mining town in southern Belgium. One of the darkest periods of his life led to one of his greatest masterpieces.

We are constantly told, “Don’t let failure define you.” Granted. We should not completely define ourselves by living in and through our past failures. But we can learn from and utilize our past failures to make a profound impact on the world around us. Without Van Gogh’s years of failure, depression, poverty, and brokenness, there would have been no Van Gogh the celebrated artist. Without Paul’s past life of persecution and his subsequent road to Damascus moment, there would have been no Apostle Paul writing “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.” Without Rachmaninoff’s “embarrassing” first concerto, there would have been no second or third. Without a failed political and legal career, you never have Lincoln the president.

Instead of running from our failures, let us recognize them, learn from them, and use them. If your life seems defined by failure, then congratulations, you are in great company.

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