Category: Letters

Farnam Street’s 2016 Annual Letter to Readers

To the readers of Farnam Street:

Most public companies issue an annual letter to shareholders. These letters present an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company on behalf of the shareholders to communicate with the people who own the company.

Last year I started a similar tradition at Farnam Street. To a large extent, I consider you the owners of Farnam Street.

Investors, or owners, typically exchange money for shares in a company. I think your investment in Farnam Street is just as important —You trust me with something far more valuable than money: Time.

For all of us, time is finite. Reading Farnam Street means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above average return.

***

2016 was a record year in almost every reader-related metric.

Readership increased approximately 20 percent, which was decent. We surpassed over 100k readers to our weekly newsletter, Brain Food (OK, that’s a pretty awesome milestone. I might have even celebrated with a bottle of champagne … or two.)

Visitors spent more time on the site (a good proxy for how interested people are in the content). The bounce rate (a fancy phrase for the percentage of people who look at one page and then leave the site) continued to move in the right direction. In short we had more people who read longer and looked at more pages.

***

I think we all know that readership increased in spite of our website design, rather than because of it. Luckily, we’re tackling that problem next year thanks to the fine folks at Grain and Mortar. I can’t wait for you to see the new site.

***

I’m often asked how we grow our audience. My simple answer is met with skepticism: Our readers tell their friends and coworkers. That’s it.

This is usually followed by an endless slew of unsolicited advice on how to “exponentially increase our growth.” A typical example is the “reward” for generating controversy.

A lot of websites create controversy intentionally. They want nothing more than for 50% of their audience to love an article and 50% to hate it. Why? Because both sides will dig in and then they will talk about it. When they talk about it they’ll link back to the original site, thus driving traffic (and, even more perverse, as a byproduct of how most search engines work, these arguments typically increase search engine rankings).

You almost can’t help but admire the cleverness of this strategy, which takes advantage of hard wired defaults both in humans and search to gain an advantage. This strategy is so common these days it’s not even divergent — it’s the norm!

However easy that play is, intentionally creating controversy to get pageviews isn’t a strategy you’ll find us employing to grow quickly. While it is important to account for arguments from all sides, we’ll stick to our knitting.

While we’re open to new ideas and ways to increase the value for readers, we’re not open to gimmicks or short term strategies. We’d rather be a tree that digs its roots deep, grows slowly, and can’t be easily blown over.

***

Events

In 2016, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops (Innovation and Decision-Making) and private versions too. We continue to limit attendance at these events to ensure a good experience for everyone.

One of the most surprising things about the public events is that people get to meet people who are curious, kind, and intelligent. In short, people just like them.

The quality of individuals who attend these events continues to blow my mind. This year we had attendees from Github, Tuft and Needle, AJO, Glimmer of Hope, Warburg Pincus, Rackspace, Inspire Environmental, and two difference branches of U.S. Special Forces, to name a few.

Last year, if you recall, I was worried that we were spreading ourselves too thin with respect to the variety of topics we took on. Reducing the number of offerings in 2016 was the right thing to do as it allowed us time to relaunch the website ReThinkWorkshops.com as well as make significant improvements to the content of both Re:Think Innovation and Re:Think Decision-Making.

Our next event is Re:Think Decision-Making in Seattle this March. I hope to see you there.

Podcast

The Knowledge Project, our podcast, reached over 350,000 downloads. Which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that we release about one episode a month. Things on this front will largely stay the same for the time being. We already have some exceptional guests lined up for early in the new year.

Tools and More

Productivity That Gets Results, our popular productivity seminar, continues to help people avoid the traps that get in the way of being productive. We want to help you spend more time doing what you want to be doing.

The Art of Reading launched to some great feedback and success at helping people improve their information consumption. Yes, we made a course about reading.

We spend so much of our time reading these days — whether it’s email, articles, blogs, books, or reports. The dividends to getting even 5% more effective at remembering, knowing when to skim, and connecting ideas becomes a non-linear outcome.

To my knowledge, our course on reading is the only significantly student-tested course that has worked for executives, teachers, students, NFL Coaches, best-selling authors and more. But we’re making it even better.

We undertook a significant effort over the past few months to materially improve The Art of Reading, which will relaunch in as soon as the video editing is done. (There is no reason to wait to purchase it if you’re interested, existing customers will have access to all the new content for free.)

I don’t want to spoil the other things we’re working on in this space but we’ve made progress on two addition products. The first one is seminar based and should be out soon. The second is larger in ambition and scope and I’ve never seen anything like it. My hope is that we can launch this in the fall as we’ve already delayed a year to make sure we’re getting it right.

Learning Community

Online media properties are continuing to look for ways that create and capture value. The problem here is that most of these organizations want to capture more value than they create — they focus on the wrong side of the equation. This leads to a short-term engagement between creator and audience, as the latter realizes they’ve been had and moves on. Farnam Street tries to take the opposite approach: Add so much value that people want to support it.

Recently, we’ve started to incorporate some of the lessons we’ve learned running a membership program for a year back into the offering. The most apparent is that we’ve moved away from calling it the membership program and are now call it a learning community. This phrase (and our subsequent activities) bring the program much closer in line with what we are trying to create for our readers.

Last year I said that we would use some of the proceeds from the learning community to improve the quality of the regular, free, content. I think we delivered on that this year and I look forward to pushing even more next year. (And every year.)

Rest assured, the majority of FS content will always be free. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the learning community.

***

Team Farnam

Perceptive readers know there is more to Farnam Street than me. Last year we reached the point where I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do myself so Jeff Annello (@mungerisms) came on board. Jeff and I have worked together in the past, and I value both our friendship and the quality of thought he brings to the table. There are a lot of ideas I want to try and lots of great things to come, and we'll continue to work with exceptional people as we go along.

***

Sponsorships

I want to thank our lead sponsor for 2016: Slack. I’ll also welcome our incoming sponsors Royce Funds, Greenhaven Road Capital, SparkBox, adventur.es, and Grain and Mortar (who are currently in the process of redesigning the site). We still have one open spot, so if you’d like to inquire about sponsoring the blog please get in touch with me.

***

2016 Report Card

Last year I offered a way to judge our progress. Let’s quickly review what I wrote so I can hold myself accountable.

Here is what you can expect and hold us accountable for in 2016:

The quality of all content will be much higher. We will do better at adding context, presenting ideas in compelling ways, adding tools to your mental tool box, making things practical, and exposing you to mental models that will help you be better at what you do. We’ll further our exploration of what it means to live a meaningful life and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world.

The Re:Think workshops will offer a better experience. While everyone has described their experiences so far as off the charts, I see so much room for improvement that it’s hard to fathom how we’re exceeding expectations. Everything from onboarding and hotel options to the overall experience while at the event will be improved. We have an amazing team in place for the events. They consistently sell out.

The audio quality on the podcast will be much improved. I’ve already taken care of this to a large extent. Where possible, I’ll do more in-person interviews as these offer more meaningful and deeper conversations.

The experience of existing readers will not be compromised to add new readers. For a large part of the year there was an annoying little pop-up that appeared on the screen asking for your email address. This was a mistake. While it helped us grow at about 2500 readers a month, it’s annoying to some and degrades the reading experience for all. You deserve better. I fumbled here and hopefully recovered. I was aware of how annoying it was and failed to act. The allure of 100,000 readers is a strong pull — especially when my mother reminds me that her “small town” (my words, not hers) has more people than I have readers. Anyway, the pop-up is off now.

The site will function better. We will be seeking to engage a web designer in 2016 or 2017 to redesign the site to improve navigation, organization, and the overall reading experience. This is more about finding the right person or team to work with us and less about the year in which it happens.

Products will exceed your expectations. We have two new things slated to roll out in 2016 — a mini-course in January on How to Read A Book and a project I’ll reveal when the time is right. To help ensure we’re delivering at the quality and caliber you deserve, we’ve invested in hiring the right people to help design, develop, and deliver these courses. I hope you’ll offer your honest feedback.

Here is my view on how we did in 2016.

“The quality of content will be much higher.” We made much progress on this front. We still need to work on better synthesizing and connecting ideas. We need to get better at varying the length of content as we perhaps trended a little verbose toward the end of this year.

“The Re:Think workshops will offer a better experience.” While there is room for improvement. We improved the content, added some nice personal touches, and really sought to deepen our connection with readers. These events provide a way for us to do things that don’t scale but add enormous value to everyone.

“The audio quality on the podcast will be much improved.” I won’t say it’s “much improved,” but I didn’t make as many bone headed mistakes this year.

“The experience of existing readers will not be compromised to add new readers.” We held off from doing a pop up and instead offered original content to high-quality publications, such as Medium, Quartz, etc. (If you run a publication with a big audience you think would be a fit, fire off an email to [email protected]).

“The site will function better.” Grain and Mortar is in the process of redesigning it now. If you have comments or suggestions, please reach out to [email protected]

“Products will exceed your expectations.” We’re getting better at this. The content quality is great and getting better but we still needed some help with the packaging and functionality. Sparkbox helped us redesign fscourses.com to help create a platform that pairs great infrastructure, design, and content.

Overall, I’m pleased but not satisfied.

What to expect for 2017

I won’t offer as detailed of a roadmap for next year. This year we worked on a lot of low-hanging fruit. Improvements are likely to be more incremental this year. Don’t let this unsexy statement fool you, there is significant value in the trenches.

In 2017, we will work to better synthesize, connect, and explain timeless ideas that help you make better decisions, avoid stupidity, and kick-ass at life. I’ll try to add more personal stories and anecdotes from my journey.

The learning community will continue towards an exclusive vibrant hub of learning that fosters deep connections between participants and value you can't get anywhere else.

We’ll have a new slate of guests on the Knowledge Project, start exploring longer content such as books, and continue to offer you mental tools and tactics that deliver value and live a meaningful life.

We work hard to be the website you want to read. The website you want to immerse yourself in. The one where after 20 minutes of looking around you look up and say “I’ve found my tribe.”

2017 is also the year I start working on a few book projects. Stay tuned.

***

Where I’ve made the biggest personal mistake over the past year is thinking I can do two or more things at once successfully. Velocity is a vector dependent concept. Moving in two directions that are not 100% aligned creates drag.

There is a lot of work ahead of us.

Having no idea what tomorrow might bring, I try to prepare for an uncertain future. I show up to the office every day looking for opportunities to move forward in the best way I can. That’s usually putting one foot in front of the other and trying to make incremental progress without regressing.

Thank you for your continued time and trust in me and Farnam Street.
—Shane

Roald Dahl’s Heartbreaking Letter About Losing his Daughter in 1962

Roald_Dahl

Roald Dahl, the beloved author of my personal favorites Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The BFG, lost his eldest daughter, Olivia, to measles in the early 60s. It wasn’t until 1988, however, that he penned a remarkable letter that doubles as a plea to parents, urging them to have their children vaccinated.

The letter is as relevant today as when it originally appeared, in a pamphlet published by the Sandwell Health Authority, in 1988.

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn't do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.

Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.

LET THAT SINK IN.

Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.

So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?

They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.

So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.

The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was ‘James and the Giant Peach‘. That was when she was still alive. The second was ‘The BFG‘, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

Albert Einstein on Education and the Secret to Learning

Albert_Einstein
In 1915 Einstein, who was then 36, was living in wartime Berlin with his cousin Elsa, who would eventually become his second wife. His two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard “Tete” Einstein were with his estranged wife Mileva in neutral Zurich.

After eight long years of effort his theory of general relativity, which would propel him to international celebrity, was finally summed up in just two pages. Flush with his recent accomplishment, he sent his 11-year-old Hans Albert the following letter, which is found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children.

My dear Albert,

Yesterday I received your dear letter and was very happy with it. I was already afraid you wouldn’t write to me at all any more. You told me when I was in Zurich, that it is awkward for you when I come to Zurich. Therefore I think it is better if we get together in a different place, where nobody will interfere with our comfort. I will in any case urge that each year we spend a whole month together, so that you see that you have a father who is fond of you and who loves you. You can also learn many good and beautiful things from me, something another cannot as easily offer you. What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility. Also go to my friend Zangger sometimes. He is a dear man.

Be with Tete kissed by your

Papa.

Regards to Mama.

Follow your curiosity and read letters from Hunter S. Thompson, Eudora Welty, van Gogh, Charles Bukowski, and Richard Feynman.

Vincent van Gogh Writes a Letter on the Three Stages of Love

Vincent van Gogh on Love

In a letter to his brother Theo, dated Thursday, 3 November 1881, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes an unreciprocated love and in so doing alludes to three stages of love.

My dear Theo,

There’s something on my mind that I want to tell you. Perhaps you already know something about it, and what I’m telling you isn’t news.

I wanted to tell you that this summer I’ve come to love Kee Vos so much that I could find no other words for it than ‘it’s just as if Kee Vos were the closest person to me and I the closest person to Kee Vos’. And — I said these words to her. But when I told her this, she replied that her past and her future were all one to her and so she could never return my feelings.

Then I was in an awful dilemma about what to do, to resign myself to that no, nay, never, or — not yet to regard the matter as over and done with, and to take courage and not give up yet.

I chose the latter. And until now I haven’t regretted that decision, even though I’m still confronted with that no, nay, never.

Since then, of course, I’ve suffered a great many ‘petty miseries of human life’, which, if they were written down in a book, could perhaps serve to amuse some people, though they can hardly be considered pleasant if one experiences them oneself. Nonetheless, up to now I’ve been glad that I left the resignation or ‘how-not-to-do-it’ method to those who prefer it and, as for myself, plucked up a little courage. You understand that in cases like this it’s surprisingly difficult to know what one can, may and must do. But ‘wandering we find our way’, and not by sitting still.

One of the reasons I haven’t written to you about it before now is that the position in which I found myself was so vague and undecided that I couldn’t explain it to you.

[…]

I said that now the situation is becoming somewhat clearer. First, Kee says no, nay, never, and furthermore I believe that I’ll have tremendous difficulty with the elders who already regard the matter as over and done with and will try and force me to give up. For the time being, though, I believe they’ll proceed with caution, keeping me dangling and fobbing me off until Uncle and Aunt Stricker’s big celebration (in December) is over. Because they want to avoid scandal. After that, though, I fear that steps will be taken to get rid of me.

Forgive the rather harsh terms I’m using to make my position clear to you. I admit that the colours are a little harsh and the lines drawn a bit too hard, but it will nevertheless give you a clearer picture of the situation than if I were to beat about the bush. So don’t suspect me of lack of respect for those Elder persons.

[…]

Yet by now you understand that I mean to leave no stone unturned in my endeavours to bring me closer to her, and I declare that

I shall love her so long
That in the end she’ll love me too.

The more she disappears, the more she appears.

Theo, aren’t you in love too, at times? I wish you were, for believe me, the ‘petty miseries’ of it are also of some value. Sometimes one is desolate, there are moments when one is in hell, as it were, but — it also brings with it other and better things. There are three stages, first not loving and not being loved, second loving and not being loved (the case in question), third loving and being loved.

I’d say that the second stage is better than the first, but the third! That’s it.

Now, old boy, go and fall in love and tell me about it sometime. Keep quiet about the case in question and sympathize with me.

He followed that up in another letter to Theo from May 1, 1882.

Last year I wrote you a great many letters telling you what I thought about love. I’m not doing so now, because I’m busy putting those same things into practice. The person for whom I felt what I wrote to you is not on my path, is beyond my reach, despite all my longing for her. Would I have done better to go on thinking of her and to overlook what came my way? I cannot decide whether I’m acting consistently or inconsistently. Suppose I were to start today on a drawing of a digger, for example — but the man says, I have to leave and won’t or can’t pose again — I don’t have the right to blame him for leaving me there with a barely sketched drawing, the more so because I started to draw him without asking permission. Must I then give up drawing a digger? I think not, especially not if tomorrow I encounter one who says, I want to come not only today but also tomorrow and the day after, and I understand what you need, go ahead, I’m patient and have the good will to do it. To be sure, I didn’t stick exactly to my first impression, but would I have done better to reason: no, I definitely need that first digger, even if he says, I can’t and won’t? And once I’ve started on No. 2, then I may certainly not work without reference to the nature standing before me, thinking the while of No. 1. That’s how things stand.

Vincent van Gogh on the Two Types of Idlers

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh (1889)
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh (1889)

The anthology Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, contains 265 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which is nearly a third of all the surviving letters he penned.

In a long and winding letter to his brother Theo dated Thursday, 24 June 1880, van Gogh shines light on his independent mind.

Now one of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.

Later, in the same letter, he defines two types of idlers.

I’m writing you somewhat at random whatever comes into my pen; I would be very happy if you could somehow see in me something other than some sort of idler.

Because there are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.

There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one. Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one.

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember, and he has vague ideas and says to himself, ‘the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood’, and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering . ‘Look, there’s an idler’, says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters sheds light on the turbulent and beautiful life of history's greatest luminaries.

Vincent van Gogh on How To Live

Van_Gogh_-_Terrasse_des_Cafés_an_der_Place_du_Forum_in_Arles_am_Abend1

Van Gogh didn't become popular until shortly after his death. To this day it's unclear whether his letters drove the initial interest in his art.

The anthology Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, contains 265 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which is nearly a third of all the surviving letters he penned.

On the third of April, 1878, in a noteworthy letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh sheds light on his intentions about how to live.

I’ve been thinking about what we discussed, and I couldn’t help thinking of the words ‘we are today what we were yesterday’. This isn’t to say that one must stand still and ought not try to develop oneself, on the contrary, there are compelling reasons to do and think so.

But in order to remain faithful to those words one may not retreat and, once one has started to see things with a clear and trusting eye, one ought not to abandon or deviate from that.

[…]

As far as being an homme intérieur et spirituel is concerned, couldn’t one develop that in oneself through knowledge of history in general and of certain people of all eras in particular, from biblical times to the Revolution and from The Odyssey to the books of Dickens and Michelet? And couldn’t one learn something from the work of the likes of Rembrandt or from Weeds by Breton, or The four times of the day by Millet, or Saying grace by Degroux, or Brion, or The conscript by Degroux (or else by Conscience), or his Apothecary, or The large oaks by Dupré, or even the mills and sand flats by Michel?

It’s by persevering in those ideas and things that one at last becomes thoroughly leavened with a good leaven, that of sorrowful yet always rejoicing, and which will become apparent when the time of fruitfulness is come in our lives, the fruitfulness of good works.

The ray from on high doesn’t always shine on us, and is sometimes behind the clouds, and without that light a person cannot live and is worth nothing and can do nothing good, and anyone who maintains that one can live without faith in that higher light and doesn’t worry about attaining it will end up being disappointed.

Vincent believed that one must pay the price to achieve the kind of success that was deserved — “that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.”

He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune.

[…]

Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good, and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.

Woe-spiritedness is quite a good thing to have, if only one writes it as two words, woe is in all people, everyone has reason enough for it, but one must also have spirit, the more the better, and it is good to be someone who never despairs.

Living means we will inevitably experience sorrow and disappointment.

If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but it’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious. It is good to love as much as one can, for therein lies true strength, and he who loves much does much and is capable of much, and that which is done with love is well done.

[…]

If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.

Love is the best and most noble thing in the human heart, especially when it has been tried and tested in life like gold in the fire, happy is he and strong in himself who has loved much and, even if he has wavered and doubted, has kept that divine fire and has returned to that which was in the beginning and shall never die. If only one continues to love faithfully that which is verily worthy of love, and does not squander his love on truly trivial and insignificant and faint-hearted things, then one will gradually become more enlightened and stronger.

The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.

It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.

It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so, or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’, but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. Even in the most cultured circles and the best surroundings and circumstances, one should retain something of the original nature of a Robinson Crusoe or a savage, for otherwise one hath not root in himself, and never let the fire in his soul go out but keep it going, there will always be a time when it will come in useful.

We must launch out into the great sea of life.

Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.

So let us simply go on quietly, each his own way, always following the light ‘sursum corda’, and as such who know that we are what others are and that others are what we are, and that it is good to have love one to another namely of the best kind, that believeth all things and hopeth all things, endureth all things and never faileth.

And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool.

We are today what we were yesterday, namely ‘honnêtes hommes’, but ones who must be tried with the fire of life to be innerly strengthened and confirmed in that which they are by nature through the grace of God.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters is a collection of some of Vincent van Gogh's best letters which shed light on a remarkable talent and his artistic notions.