Finding fulfillment

Recently, I have been reading the amazing biography of van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. What a story! Vincent tried so many things before turning to art. He was desperate to find a vocation and devote his life to something that his family would think was worthy. But nothing stuck. He tried being a print dealer, a clerk, a schoolteacher, a minister, a missionary, and each time, despite starting with intense enthusiasm, he gave up and wandered away.

Getting good at something involves two, related factors.

One — you have to work at your skills. Practice, experiment, research, study, and come back to work, regularly, for an extended period of time. I don’t care who you are or what talents you think you have, working at your craft is crucial to greatness. Experience makes you better, more facile, more intuitive, more apt to come up to some new and great. There may seem to be shortcuts. They are illusions. Even one-hit wonders work their butts off for years. Vincent was certainly willing to put in the work — but he couldn’t stick with anything. Why?

The second factor is purpose. This is more complicated than just wanting to be great at something. It’s about your calling. What must you do even if no one ever saw you doing it or paid you to do it? What will you stay up late to do? Skip meals to do? Do until your shoulders cramp and your hands fall asleep? What completes you?

We all have something we can excel at. It might be throwing a football, making a sauce, curing disease, building a house or running a country. If you can’t think of what that is, you just haven’t found it yet.

When you discover this purpose, it will fuel you while you do all the work required to be good at it. Without it, you won’t get far. But to find your true purpose, you must be brutally honest with yourself.

I took a creative writing class in college. When the professor told us we needed to submit a story each week, one of my classmates groaned, “A story every week? That’s required?” The teacher paused then said, “Why are you here?” and we each looked into our souls.

You can’t pick a purpose because it’s fashionable or lucrative. Don’t take up acting just to become a celebrity. Don’t go to graduate school just because no one will hire you. Don’t become a missionary just to please your dad. Write because you have to, not because you want to be “a writer”.

Finding your purpose can take work too. It means exposing yourself to lots of different experiences until something clicks. Watch YouTube videos, observe people running different kinds of businesses, wander through museums or hardware stores, ask strangers what they do and why. What draws you in?

Look into yourself and your past. What were the moments that brought you the greatest happiness? When did you truly feel you were you? Where were you? What were you doing? What was the essence of that moment? Was it about helping others? Making something with your hands? Solving a complex problem? Organizing chaos?

You can discover your purpose at any age. You might be young and starting your career. You might have spent thirty years doing something indifferently because you had to bring home the bacon. It’s not too late. Vincent discovered his purpose just ten years before he died. But it gave his whole life meaning.

Can you live yours without it? Should you?

{Thanks to everyone who commented and emailed after my mea culpa post yesterday.  Your understanding and encouragement mean the world to me.}

37 thoughts on “Finding fulfillment”

  1. It’s great to see somebody thinking the same subjects as I did over years with my blog and for myself. I rather felt lonely with my thoughts, with my struggle to find my purpose and fight against so called social duties (I thought I had to fulfill). I was looking for diplomas, for beeing seen and wanted to be good enough in others eyes. But no title could give me the feeling to finally be there. But I didn’t dare to just give up this struggle for a meaningful live (as defined by society and measured in the amount of money you bring home). It took me many years of reflection even if already knew it all deep inside.

    Great to see you writing about these things because you have the audience and you can reach people. This will help many people looking for their purpose in life – and trusting in themself to go for it.


  2. Inspiring to follow you on your journey Danny……I love how you can use your skills to share your quest for fulfillment in such an intimate real way……Thanks so very much!


  3. On first thoughts, to be on the right way to fill fulfilment you just have to find some excitement… so I thought until I was giving my last brushings on COMETA em busca da felicidade. Later though I cameto the conclusion that excitement can be as volatile as a ray of sunshine or the short lived joy of meeting a friend for a pint in the pub… deep down for fulfilment we need a good help of resilience and stubbornness in order to get lost in the cloud of the sweet illusion of happiness. believe me guys! um abrazo!


  4. Every word you wrote is so so soo true…
    By the way, have you read Lust for life by Irving Stone? That’s another great biographical book about VIncent… 🙂


  5. Wonderful… thank you 🙂 I have just reserved the Van Gogh book at my local library, I am looking forward to reading it !


  6. Am amazed at how your life experiences continue to parallel my son’s. Yesterday and today are spot on with personal insight into where he is. Thank you , thank you, thank you!


  7. Thank you, what a great post. My husband and I were just talking about this very subject yesterday, not only in reference to my art but other areas as well. Thanks~


  8. After I retired from teaching (which really, it is a kind of “performance” profession) I started playing music, joined a rock and roll band for 8 years and now have my own band. Some people think it’s crazy that I want to be on stage playing and singing my heart out at my age, but I think I finally found my true passion! We only go around once…might as well do it all! Great message today Danny.


  9. Thanks for going back to the inspiring posts, like today’s, and for your openness yesterday about why you are doing this. While I like hearing about your new books, and I have and use Art Before Breakfast, your inspiration and honesty are why I subscribed to your blog in the first place. Thank-you for continuing to inspire.


  10. Least you forget the gigantic influence you have had on me and many others Danny, I want to tell you that I am now (because of you and Koosje and Sketchbok Skool) a passionate artist! I have enjoyed and devoured every one of the classes and have made art a Big part of my life. Last week, before driving 10 hours to Big Bend country, I re-watched you lesson in “Storytelling” and your travel journal demonstration in your cross-country trip to Sedona etc. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can definitely say that my life is exponentially better because of you being in this world.
    monica solomon


  11. Great thoughts, Danny. I have always wanted to be…….Tried many things, good at copying others, spent many years giving to others; and, it was gratifying; but, now that I’ve found painting and drawing I can’t imagine doing anything else. It gives me such joy…I see the world thru different eyes. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts.


  12. Your last two posts, Danny, have been deep and from the heart and have given me much to think about. Thank you for all you’ve done and all the thoughts and inspiration you leave all of us with.


  13. Thank you Danny, this is a wonderful followup post to yesterday. At the ripe young age of 63, I too am rethinking my priorities. What do I REALLY want to do when I grow up? I love to encourage others to follow their dreams. I think I’m already doing that in my daily life. It comes naturally. I also love painting. I have combined the two by inviting people to join me painting en Plein Aire. I (thought) wanted to expand my horizons and promote Plein Aire painting. I realize now that would rob my joy of painting. So, thanks to you, I’ve scaled back, and will continue to enjoy the life I have left on this earth. I’m going to paint DAMMIT! 😀


  14. I once worked with a business coach who told me that she found most individuals have either a passion motive or a profit motive. The trick with having a passion motive is figuring out how to make a profit so you can live on the proceeds of your passion.


  15. Thoroughly enjoyed these last two posts!
    How did the Sunscreen Song lyrics go?
    “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your
    life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they
    wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year
    olds I know still don’t.”

    Great song that. Great lyrics.

    This post resonates with so much stuff going on in my head just now.
    As ever, thank you!

    PS. I wanna a little Vincent!

    PPS. LOVING Pierre Bonnard at mo peoples.

    PPPS. I reeeeeeally wants a wee Vincent though!


  16. I love this post. It’s so sincere and you’re right, doing something you’re passionate about is the most fulfilling thing anyone can do. And you were born to inspire people to make art, no question about it!


  17. I have spent half my life looking for my passion and just realized it has been right in front of me the whole time…I just didn’t have the confidence to embrace it until now! Thank you for the encouraging words Danny!


  18. I have enjoyed your thoughts, the articles about what you have been up to and the interviews, but, I miss the art. For tomorrow, would you please post what you sketched today? It is always interesting to see what caught your attention, what inspired you, what brought you joy! Bring back the artist Danny.


  19. I’ve been lucky to have found several things to do in life that have given me great pleasure. Travel when I was young and again while I’m old; work I’ve loved and continue to feel fulfilled by! Gardening done for years that felt great and made my yards beautiful. And now drawing that totally makes my days rich. Not every success need be measured in dollars and cents. I am rich with love and art!


  20. PS I found your book, Art Before a Breakfast, which I already own, at our local Barnes & Noble book store today. Two copies were on a bottom shelf. I moved them higher, front and center to give them a better stage, and so some lucky would be artists will have a better chance of finding them!


  21. “Write because you have to, not because you want to be “a writer”. I like this.
    Not sure if the version:
    ” Paint/ draw because you have to, not because you want to be “an artist” works the same..?
    Not really. Not in my opinion.
    Unless the object of your art is some kind of manifesto, or something.

    Then i read :

    “Vincent discovered his purpose just ten years before he died. But it gave his whole life meaning.”

    I have couple of books about Van Gogh. I did not have the time to read it so far (when i read, i read it from the cover to cover ).
    Last one that i bought is with his letters to Theo. I flip throw and read just a bit. There is some excitement vis-a-vis art and you can say that for that reason he “made the most of those 10 last years”, can you ? Really ?

    Overall, from all the stories and other biographical writings i just know he struggle with the demons in his head admitting himself in mental institution that i don’t even want to imagine what kind of treatment use to have in those times.

    Anyway, i don’t want to keep on arguing. Its just that i don’t REALLY think Vincent was fulfill.
    It is just my opinion.

    june 5th, 2015


  22. Hi Danny,
    I just discovered your books and blog about a week ago and have already bought and read Art Before Breakfast. I bought a small journal and did a sketch of my teddy bear (yes, some of us still have them as adults). That silly sketch gives me so much pleasure! Thanks for reminding us to look for the art in life. Thanks for reminding us that we don’t have to be Artists to be artists.


  23. I have to agree with Nikita. Vincent was a tortured soul who, at age 37, shot himself in the chest and died a day later. While perhaps Van Gogh found his “passion” in painting…he did not find “peace”. Seems that those two things should go together, if one is to say they have found “fulfillment”. (And for perspective on my comments…my wife took her own life 5 years ago. She had health issues that prevented her from expressing her many passions. She loved life, but in the end, could not obtain that elusive “fulfillment”.)

    That said…I love your thoughts in this post. I am on that very quest for “my calling”…just this week, I was “involuntarily retired” in a downsizing restructuring after 35 years as an artist within a corporation. Now I have to figure out who I am and what to do with that.


  24. Welcome back, Danny! If I could make another book recommendation for those struggling to find their purpose, it would be for Elle Luna’s “The Crossroads of Should and Must.” Great book, easy reading.


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