So you want to know if it is too late for you to get started.

Want to be an exceptional, world-beating athlete? Well, the standard recommendation is: slide out the womb, grab a racket, a bat or a ball immediately, pick a sport and never deviate from it under any circumstances.

Want to be a musical maestro? Well there’s no question, get lessons from a tyrannical teacher who drills Bach into you before you can walk; devote your entire childhood, adolescence and adulthood to the cause – no ifs, buts, or maybes. Fun? There can be none of that in the pursuit of greatness!

We are taught that specialisation is the only path to unbeatable talent.

But maybe we’re taught wrong.

Maybe it is actually the generalist who wins out most often.

Story Time

I’m going to tell a little story about a listless man, a man who seemed entirely unable to find his way. This man seemed doomed to a life of mediocrity and struggle.

It’s a story of for the late starters.

The guys and girls who just don’t know what they want to do with their lives. The folk who collect anxiety like vacuum cleaners collect dust thinking about how much time they’ve wasted hopping from one domain to the next while their peers speed passed with ferocious focus and single-minded purpose.

You might not know the story, but you certainly know the man. So see if you can guess who it is.

From Meanderings To Millions

There was once a boy. The boy’s mother appreciated music and art, but when the boy tried to freehand sketch the family cat. His attempt was so poor that he tore the picture up and refused to try again. 

Instead, he spent his childhood in the Netherlands playing marbles and sledding with his little brother, but mostly just looking at things. He wandered alone for hours. He walked in storms, and at night.

When he was 13, the boy was admitted to a brand-new school housed in a huge former royal palace. The art teacher was an education pioneer who argued for design to become a central part of the national economic engine.

That crusade was so successful it led the federal government to mandate freehand drawing classes in every public school. 

Rather than holding forth from the front of the class, the teacher arranged students in the centre and meandered through them like a sewing needle, giving personal attention.

Most students adored him. But he made no impression on the boy. As an adult, the boy would complain that nobody had ever told him what perspective was in drawing, even though it was so central to the teacher’s tenets that knowledge of perspective was written into the new law expanding art education.

The boy didn’t like living with strangers, so he left the school just before he turned fifteen.

Things Start Looking Up

For the next 16 months, he did little other than take long nature walks.

That couldn’t go on forever, but he had no idea what else to do. Fortunately, his uncle owned a fantastically successful art dealership, and had just been knighted. He offered his nephew a job in the big city. Making art had not inspired the boy, but selling it did. 

He turned the observational intensity he had practiced in nature to lithographs and photographs, categorising what he saw just as he had his beetles.

By twenty, he was dealing with important clients and traveling abroad for sales trips. The young man confidently told his parents that he would never have to look for a job again. He was wrong. 

Oui, Oui, Oui – Religion is All He Can See

He didn’t have enough social grace to smooth over disagreements with his boss. And he disliked bargaining, which felt like taking advantage of customers.

He was soon transferred to a London office that did not deal directly with customers and then at twenty-two he was transferred again, this time to Paris. 

He arrived in France amid an artistic revolution.

On walks to work, the young man passed studios of artists who were in the process of becoming famous.

And yet, as with the art teacher, none of it registered. He was too busy with his new obsession: religion. Years later, when he and his little brother discussed those revolutionary artists, he would say he had “seen absolutely nothing of them.”

And then he was finally dismissed from the art dealership…

Please! Just do Something!

He went to work as an assistant at a boarding school in a seaside town in England. 

Working 14-hour days, he taught classes from French to math, oversaw the dorm, took the kids to church, and acted as the handyman.

He found another job as a tutor. This time at a fancier school, but after a few months he decided he would become a missionary in South America. His parents talked him out of that, insisting that he needed to “stop following [his] own desires” and return to a stable life course.

Like Father, Like Son

His mother wished he would do something in nature that would make him “happier and calmer”. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps; he would train to become a pastor.

In the meantime, his father got him a job as a bookstore clerk. The young man loved books and worked from 8 a.m. until midnight. His new goal was to get accepted to a university so that he could later train as a pastor. 

Again, he unleashed his tireless passion. He worked with a tutor and copied by hand the text of entire books.

“I must sit up as long as I can keep my eyes open,” he told his brother. He reminded himself that “practise makes perfect,” but Latin and Greek did not come easily to him.

He moved in with an uncle, a stern war hero who urged him simply to “push on”. The young man resolved to begin work before his peers rose and finish after they slept. His uncle would find him reading in the wee morning hours. 

And despite all the hard work, he still struggled in his studies. 

Nearing his twenty-fifth birthday, the young man heard a sermon about how the economic revolution had made certain citizens, fabulously wealthy, while others had been thrust into abject poverty.

He decided to forsake university to spread the word more quickly.

Our leading man opted for a shorter educational course, but was not adept at giving the succinct, punchy sermons that the school mandated.

He failed in that program as well.

Can I Get an Amen??

But nobody could stop him from preaching, so he headed for coal country, where inspiration was needed most. 

There he world preach to workers so downtrodden that they referred to the world above the mineshaft as “up in ‘Hell”. He dove into spiritual service with his usual spirit, giving away his clothes and money, and dotting night and day on the ill and injured. 

Shortly after he arrived, a series of ferocious explosions killed 121 miners.

The suffering locals marvelled at the young man’s endurance as he tried to soothe families.

But they also found him odd; the children he taught did not listen. Soon, his makeshift ministry was finished.

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

He was twenty-seven and despondent.

A decade after an exuberant start as an art dealer, he had no possessions, accomplishments, or direction.

He poured his heart out in a missive to his little brother, now a respected art dealer himself. Saying, “A man, too, he exhorted, doesn’t always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something…I know that I could be a quite different man! There’s something within me, so what is it!”

He had been a student, an art dealer, a teacher, a book-seller, a prospective pastor. After promising starts, he had failed spectacularly in every path he tried.

His brothers suggested he try carpentry, or look for work as a barber. His sister thought he would make a fine baker. He was an insatiable reader, so perhaps a librarian. But in his despair, he turned his ferocious energy on the last thing he could start right away.

His next letter to his brother was very short. “I’m writing to you while drawing and I’m in a hurry to get back to it.”

The Talent of a Ten-Year-Old

Previously, the man had seen drawing as a distraction from his aim of reaching people with truth. Now he began to seek truth by documenting the lives around him in drawings. 

He had stopped drawing as a child when he realised he was a clumsy artist. So he started at the very beginning, reading Guide to the ABCs of Drawing.

In the coming years, he would make a few very brief attempts at formal training.

His cousin-in-law was a painter and tried to teach him watercolour. But the man struggled with the fragile touch required for watercolour, and the mentor/mentee relationship ended after a month.

His former art-dealer boss, now an esteemed tastemaker in the art world, pronounced his drawings unworthy of being displayed for sale. “of one thing I am sure,” the boss told him, “you are no artist.”

He added flatly, “You started too late.”

When he was nearly 33, 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. 

Changing Your Mind is Bad, Right?

As he had between careers, he pinballed from one artistic passion to another.

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. Each time he fell truly in love, and then just as quickly back out.

One day, he dragged an easel and oil paints out to a sand dune in a storm.

He ran in and out of cover, slapping and slathering paint on the canvas in staccato strokes between gusts of wind that peppered the painting with grains of sand. The vicious oil paint and the speed required to apply it in the storm freed his imagination and his hand from the crippling deficiencies that plagued him when he strove for perfect realism.

He realised, finally, that he actually could paint.

And he enjoy it tremendously. Saying, “painting has proved less difficult than I expected.” 

He continued to whipsaw from one artistic experiment to another. He even started piano lessons because he thought musical tones might teach him something about colour tones. 

His peregrinations continued for the few remaining years of his short life, both geographically and artistically.

Letting Go Of Desires For Success

He finally forsook the goal of ever becoming a respected artist. And one by one left behind all of the styles that he had previously claimed to be critical, but at which he had failed.

He emerged with a new art. Impetuous, slathered with paint, erupting with color, 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.

For years he had tried and failed to capture every proportion of a figure accurately. Now he let that go so entirely that he left figures walking among trees with faces left blank and hands like mittens. 

And There in the Night Sky…

He looked out his bedroom window one evening.

And when he picked up the brush, his imagination transformed a nearby town into a tiny village. The tree in the foreground became massive, winding up the canvas like vine in the swirling night sky. 

It was just a few years from the recommended relegation to a drawing class for ten-year-olds. But that starry night would launch a new era of art and inspire new conceptions of beauty and expression, becoming some of the most valuable objects – culturally and monetarily – that have ever existed in the world. 

Four of Van Gogh’s paintings have sold for over 100 million dollars.

His paintings served as a bridge to modern art and inspired a widespread devotion that no other artist has equalled.

Van Gough’s late start did not work against him, but instead informed and shaped his art. His meandering path was integral to his unparalleled success.