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Van Gogh’s Mental Battle, The Brain’s Natural Planning Process, & The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Our Work

Van Gogh’s Mental Battle

Resources: Gauguin’s Stirring First-Hand Account of What Actually Happened the Night Van Gogh Cut off His Own Ear
Description: A recounting of the details behind the infamous incident in which Van Gogh cut off his ear as recounted by his close friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin


Paul Gauguin was a prolific artist and close friend of Vincent Van Gogh. He was held in such high esteem that he had the distinguished privilege of being called “Master” by Van Gogh. After a great deal of bidding and pleading, Van Gogh managed to persuage Van Gogh to move in with him in the hopes of starting a community of artists who could challenge each other and push the boundaries of great art-making. After moving in with him, Gauguin noticed two things: 1) A gradual attainment of mastery through humble submission to criticism and instruction and 2) a gradual descent into mental unrest, anguish, and instability.

On one dramatic occasion, according to Gauguin, Van Gogh stalked him down as he was going for a walk and when he turned around to see who was following him, he saw Van Gogh with a razor in his hand. When he turned around, Van Gogh abruptly stopped in his tracks and began walking in the opposite direction. To avoid the drama and danger implied by Van Gogh’s instability, Gauguin checked into a hotel. Upon returning to Van Gohg’s place the next day, he observed a police officer and a crowd of people standing around. According to the police, Van Gogh had cut off his ear, went to a brothel, and gave his ear as a souvenir to a woman there he knew. Gauguin informed the police of Van Gogh’s struggles, asked them to go check on him, and instructed them to tell his friend that he had left town if he asked about him. Gauguin returned home and Van Gogh was committed to an asylum where he eventually committed suicide. During his time in the asylum, however, Van Gogh managed to create some of his most brilliant works of art.

Natural Planning

Resource: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen 
Description: Natural Planning


Although the brain’s natural planning process is highly effective and already somewhat innate, it’s still not commonly owned and put into practice. Rather than go with the flow of natural planning, most people rely on reactive planning — waiting on things to become urgent before and then intensifying action/stress to manage them.

There is a five step natural planning method that our brain intuitively follows when we have a desire: Identification of purpose/principles, defining/envisioning of outcome, brainstorming possibilities/solutions, organizing options/ideas, determining next steps.

Purpose — The solution to most problems begins with getting clear about why it’s a problem in the first place. That is, a problem is only a problem because there’s an overarching purpose that’s being sought. Becoming less fuzzy about what that purpose is moves us closer to the solution. Purpose breeds motivation, defines success, expands options, and creates standards by which actions can be measured.

Principles — These are the things we rarely think about, but we always think within them. Principles dictate our thinking at every turn. Becoming more conscious of them helps us live consistently, resolve conflict, and set clear expectations for others.

Defining/Envisioning Outcomes — Most people demand to see a strategy before they envision an outcome. That is, they refuse to commit to a picture of what they want until a clear method can be shown for how to attain it. This is opposite of how our brain works though. When we identify desired outcomes, we improve our ability to recognize the opportunities and strategies foe achieving them.


“Although the brain’s natural planning process is highly effective and already somewhat innate, it’s still not commonly owned and put into practice. Rather than go with the flow of natural planning, most people rely on reactive planning — waiting on things to become urgent before and then intensifying action/stress to manage them.”

“It never hurts to ask the why question. Almost anything you’re currently doing can be enhanced and even galvanized by more scrutiny at this top level of focus. Why are you going to your next meeting? What’s the purpose of your task? Why are you having friends over for dinner? Why are you hiring a marketing director instead of an agency? Why are you putting up with the situation in your service organization? Why do you have a budget? Ad infinitum. “

“Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” —George Santayana

“Purpose defines success. It’s the primal reference point for any investment of time and energy, from deciding to run for elective office to designing a form. “

“Let’s face it: if there’s no good reason to be doing something, it’s not worth doing. I’m often stunned by how many people have forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing—and by how quickly a simple question like, “Why are you doing that?” can get them back on track. “

“When you land on the real purpose for anything you’re doing, it makes things clearer. Just taking two minutes and writing out your primary reason for doing something invariably creates an increased sharpness of vision, much like bringing a telescope into focus. “

“Paradoxically, even as purpose brings things into pinpoint focus, it opens up creative thinking about wider possibilities. “

“In order to most productively access the conscious and unconscious resources available to you, you must have a clear picture in your mind of what success would look, sound, and feel like. Purpose and principles furnish the impetus and the monitoring, but vision provides the actual blueprint of the final result. This is the what instead of the why. What will this project or situation really be like when it successfully appears in the world? “

“We know that the focus we hold in our minds affects what we perceive and how we perform. This is as true on the golf course as it is in a staff meeting or during a serious conversation with a life partner. My interest here lies in providing a model for focus that is dynamic in a practical way, especially in project thinking. When you focus on something—the vacation you’re going to take, the meeting you’re about to go into, the project you want to launch—that focus instantly creates ideas and thought patterns you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Even your physiology will respond to an image in your head as if it were reality. “

“Your automatic creative mechanism is teleological. That is, it operates in terms of goals and end results. Once you give it a definite goal to achieve, you can depend upon its automatic guidance system to take you to that goal much better than “you” ever could by conscious thought. “You” supply the goal by thinking in terms of end results. Your automatic mechanism then supplies the means whereby.” —Maxwell Maltz

“There is a simple but profound principle that emerges from understanding the way your perceptive filters work: you won’t see how to do it until you see yourself doing it. “

“You often need to make it up in your mind before you can make it happen in your life. “

“Many of us hold ourselves back from imagining a desired outcome unless someone can show us how to get there. Unfortunately, that’s backward in terms of how our minds work to generate and recognize solutions and methods. “

“I always wanted to be somebody. I should have been more specific.” —Lily Tomlin

“One of the most powerful life skills, and one of the most important to hone and develop for both professional and personal success, is creating clear outcomes. “

“Outcome/vision can range from a simple statement of the project, such as “Finalize computer-system implementation,” to a completely scripted movie depicting the future scene in all its glorious detail. When I am able to get people to focus on a successful scenario of their project, they usually experience heightened enthusiasm and think of something unique and positive about it that didn’t occur to them before. “Wouldn’t it be great if . . .” is not a bad way to start thinking about a situation, at least for long enough to have the option of getting an answer. “

The Meaning Behind Work

Resource: Jocko Willink’s Secret To Get Work Done – THE MEANING BEHIND IT (14:49)
Description: Jocko Willink shares thoughts on how to push yourself to do the stuff you don’t feel like doing.


Stop telling yourself that your life would be better if you weren’t working on the things you’re working on. If you truly feel that way, then stop doing it and go do what you believe in. If you can’t do that, this means it’s something you have to do in order to create something you decided you truly want. It’s a reflection of your priorities. Own the work. Take pride in the work. When you act like a victim about the things you freely decided to do (going to your job, doing the laundry, doing mundane work, etc) you disrespect your goals.

Crush your menial tasks like a soldier. Turn into a battle against your weak self and say “I’m going to totally lock down and crush this menial with laser focus.”

Step back and clarify your mission. If you’re complaining about something you need to do, you’ve lost sight of your mission. Get clear on your why and get excited about what your work is going to do for your why.

Here’s what kills us: telling ourselves stuff like “I wish I could be doing something else because what I’m doing now doesn’t matter.” What you’re doing now does matter because if you didn’t do it, you’d be miserable.

Some things matter not because of what’s in front of you, but because of their relationship to a broader strategic plan. Don’t just focus on what’s obviously important. Derive your sense of what’s important from your vigilant awareness of the strategic plan.

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