6 Contemporary Life Lessons From The Great Artists Of The Past

They show us different paths to success.
A man takes a picture of the painting
A man takes a picture of the painting

The metaphors of life and success, static and sharply etched for ages, are being rapidly redefined. The pace of change of technology, social structures, personal aspirations, societal stability is influencing our approach to our lives.

But, sometimes the past has answers for a morphing present. Looking at the great artists of the past and their lives, we can infer, absorb and apply widely different lessons for crafting a successful life.

Being Cezanne

Cezanne found success late in life. He toiled forgotten for years, patiently working on his craft, defining his unique style, finding the courage to display his works. Yet he persevered. Often we imagine success to be prodigious, attained in youth and maintained thereafter. Experimentation is perceived to be the domain of the young. The cult of the youthful startup entrepreneur further reinforced this belief. We are slowly seeing that definition being challenged, with mid-life entrepreneurs or people finding new success in a different area.

Being Cezanne, we can all imbibe the lesson of continuing to strive, of not letting age or experience deter us from trying again and again.

Being Cezanne, we can all imbibe the lesson of continuing to strive, of not letting age or experience deter us from trying again and again. If success is the probabilistic translation of effort into outcome, then simply by continuing to try we improve our chances of eventual success.

Being Picasso

Picasso is said to have gone through seven key phases as an artist. Not satisfied with early success, he went through a period of questioning, trial and reinvention every few years, and in doing so, created several breakthroughs in art. Reinventing has not always been looked upon kindly. Given that traditional mindsets valued stability and steadiness, success meant finding a formula that worked and repeating it for continued success. Our parents had a single career and often a single job. Our generation was expected to have a single career but multiple jobs.

Given the pace of change, our children, it is estimated, will have multiple careers and multiple jobs. Moreover, being an expert deters people from learning new things, because it implies starting again from a stage of not knowing. Reinvention is a necessity in the face of change.

Being Picasso, we can shun static goals, create a dynamic definition of who we are and what we attempt in life. There is a new notion of "multi-potentiality" and recognizing our different strengths or interests, we can choose to try new things – and be willing to fail in many such attempts.

Being Van Gogh

Van Gogh had the ability to work with extreme focus for short bursts, and in those manic moments of concentration, he created his masterpieces. We have glorified multi-tasking for a long while. But new neuroscientific research shows that our best work happens not through spreading our attention onto many things at the same time, rather through serial uni-tasking. In effect, being highly focused on one thing for a period, and then shifting to the next task.

Being Van Gogh, we can learn to put concentrated effort. We have many demands upon our time today. Media, social media and multiple priorities claim our attention. Learning to zone out of distractions or multiple priorities, to concentrate on one priority at a time and put in-depth effort in one area at a time is crucial process in eventual success.

Being Rembrandt

Rembrandt created the perfect balance of shadows and luminosity in his ethereal portraits that focus our vision on what he wanted us to perceive. Sometimes we find it impossible to decide what to focus on. Yet, if everything is in perfect balance, in perfect harmony, in perfect focus, then nothing in our lives and efforts stands out.

Being Rembrandt, we can choose carefully what to focus on. In sharpening our focus, we enable ourselves to succeed.

Being Rembrandt, we can choose carefully what to focus on. In sharpening our focus, we enable ourselves to succeed. That focus may change over time. Building on the serial uni-tasking mindset, we can over time achieve multiple things. But our lives are defined by the problems we choose to solve, and in having the right set of goals, we can help ourselves achieve some good things in life.

Being Turner

The expansively painted canvases of Turner capture the drama of the entire setting, and the people and objects are situated against that flamboyant backdrop. Oftentimes, we are so focused on the micro, on the immediate, on what benefits us as individuals that we forget that our lives and our businesses occur within a larger ecosystem. Often, in focusing on personal benefit, we don't understand larger benefits and thus lose out. Understanding and appreciating that larger ecosystem, the interconnected systems and networks of people that determine the outcomes of our efforts is very important.

Being Turner, we can turn our attention from an inside out approach, to an outside in approach. Become a "possibilitarian" not just for ourselves, but for the ecosystem.

Being Da Vinci

No list of artists can be complete without mentioning Da Vinci, the original Renaissance Man, whose achievements straddle the realms of art, sculpture, medicine, biology, engineering, social organization, and must more. Today, speed is important and the internet makes a world of information readily available to us. So instead of polymaths, we value life-hacks—those that can quickly scan readily available information and create quick fixes or generate quick new ideas. But, at the same time, the world is changing and becoming more complex than ever. These intractable challenges require deeper and interdisciplinary solutions. Innovators have known for centuries that new ideas often occur at the edges, at the intersections of two domains, disciplines or ideas. New solutions cannot be crafted by superficially understanding one or few areas, rather by going deep into a few areas.

Being Da Vinci, we will find the courage to dig deep, love to learn, be willing to experiment, be open to connecting disparate ideas, and look at meta-level linkages to craft unique solutions.


In the end, art is always about passion, and so is life. Lived fully, to the extreme, with openness to ideas, experimentation, people, and possibilities, we can maximize our potential and in doing so, enrich our days and our years.