Lessons from Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’​: make your startup your life’s work

There is a really big difference between having a job and seeking to create your life’s work. A job pays the bills, can be rewarding, and provides a living for you and your family, whilst your life’s work, though it can also pay the bills, has much deeper meaning. Your life’s work is the expression of your purpose, and because your purpose is unique, is also unique to you. That’s the mantra you should adopt for your startup: make it your life’s work, not the next best alternative to working for someone else.

One of the biggest misconceptions ingrained in us from early childhood is that work is a means to an end. In school, it’s for an exam grade to move onto the next stage for a certificate as an entry point to get a good job. In our careers, it’s for a payday, then increasing our salary is the key measure of progress. But we confuse ourselves by not mapping outcomes with purpose, and reward is erroneously a binary link to monetary metrics.

Pound signs are secondary. Finding your calling and life’s work are about discovering your identity. It’s about leaning into a deeper expression of who you are, it’s that you have something to say. So, the question of finding your life’s work in essence is the question: What do you want to say? And by say, I mean create. it’s about finding yourself in your work

The problem with this can be twofold unless we have a clear line of sight and definition of what is important to us. In a startup, it can put happiness on the horizon, contingent on an outcome we can’t control, that’s the nature of risk and uncertainty in a new venture. Secondly, because this outcome is in the future, our happiness is perpetually beyond reach. We’re always chasing it. This creates pressure managing our own expectations, but also a need to justify yourself based on external metrics as to what constitutes startup success.

Every time we achieve something, we discover that the happiness it provides is fleeting, a short-term dopamine hit, so we set our sights on the next achievement. Which is why if you set your startup to be your life’s work, this offers a deeper, intrinsic reward that gives you purpose, rhythm, and balance. So, what does a life’s work look like?

Claude Monet’s monumental canvases of his water garden – see the photo accompanying this blog – painted in the last decade of his life, the Grandes Décorations, are I believe, the ultimate expression of a life’s work. His Nymphéas (‘Water Lilies’) series is one of the most celebrated, iconic images of Impressionism, but the story of their creation makes them even more remarkable.

Recognisable at a glance, Monet’s Water Lilies capture the beauty, fragility, and radiance found in nature. At his home in the French village of Giverny, Monet took his easel outside and set to capturing the plant life of his property on the canvas. The result was a series of nearly 250 individual paintings which were created during the last thirty years of his life. The Water Lilies serve as a diary of Monet’s life, and represent his life’s work.

Monet’s vision was a circular installation of his vast paintings, which would surround and immerse the viewer in a colourful expanse of water and sky. They offer an aesthetic immersion in the garden that obsessed him. These paintings became the focus of his entire life, working diligently on them, not even slowing down when his eyesight began to weaken due to the onset of cataracts.

The Water Lilies cycle occupied Monet for three decades, from the late 1890s until his death in 1926, at the age of 86. It resulted in the final great panels donated by Monet to the French State in 1922, which have been on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie since 1927. Monet gifted them to France the day after the armistice of November 11, 1918 and were displayed according to his design in the Orangerie in 1927, a few months after his death.

The Musée de l’Orangerie houses eight of the great Nymphéas compositions created from various panels assembled side by side. These compositions are all the same height (1.97m) but differ in length so that they could be hung across the curved walls of two egg-shaped rooms. He planned out the forms, volumes, positioning, rhythm and the spaces between the various panels, the unguided experience of the visitor through several entrances to the room, the daylight coming in from above that floods the space when the sun is out or which is more discreet when the sun is masked by clouds, thus making the paintings resonate according to the weather.

The whole set is one of the most vast and monumental creations in painting made in the first half of the C20th and covers a surface area of 200m squared. The dimensions and area covered by the painting envelop the viewer in nearly100m, where a landscape of water punctuated with water lilies, willow branches, reflections of trees and clouds unfolds, creating the illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore, as Monet put it.  In an equally suggestive way, the elliptical shape of the rooms draws out the mathematical symbol for infinity.

Looking at Monet’s Water Lilies, his passion, desire, and relentless dedication to hia life’s work, what are the habits you need to create for yourself to make your startup your life’s work?

Set your own definition of success I once asked a client to visualise a day when they’re free from the constant pressure to achieve, and how they measured success. His response was overwhelmingly disappointing: To impress other people, it would be how much money I am making in my business. Others’ definitions of success leave an imprint on us. We may find ourselves chasing after that, whether consciously or subconsciously. What does success look like to you? Choose the vision where your head feels right, and your heart feels open. 

When I ask myself, what does success look like? the answer is always simple: To do work that feels meaningful. Learn and discover new things. To be present with life and to create things with purpose. This definition of success grounds me and puts me at ease. It feels deeply personal. This is something within me, waiting to be expressed, not something out there to chase after.

Monet’s definition of his life’s work and success was clear. What is yours?  

Let go of the compulsion to achieve There’s a balance of being driven to success, and the compulsion that everything must happen now. Haunted by the feeling of not doing enough and the fear of being found out, many startup founders push themselves to the verge of burning out. But building your life’s work is not a race, not even against yourself. 

Building your life’s work is analogous to gardening: you’ve planted a seed in the ground, and you wait. Yes, you can tend the soil, water it, remove pests from its leaves, give it enough sun. Each day, you can care for its environment, but you cannot force it to bear fruit before it’s ready.

Become less anxious about the things you can’t control. Patience is one of the most underrated qualities of an entrepreneur. But everything meaningful takes time. Monet took thirty years, probably too long for today’s entrepreneur, but take time to breathe in a comfortable rhythm.

Don’t hide away like a lone wolf Good ideas don’t happen in a vacuum. If you lock yourself in a secret chamber to work on your great idea for years, you’ll just get long straggly hair and bad teeth. Building your life’s work is an engaged process, you need to share it and get energised from feedback. 

Whenever you catch yourself saying I know this stuff already! shake it off and ask: How can I see this in a new perspective? How can I apply this in my work on a deeper level? Don’t get overwhelmed with things you think you have to learn. Enjoy the state of curiosity and the love for learning. Sharing your life’s work as a work-in-progress will give you energy and inspiration – Monet’s public sharing of his vision and ongoing creation of Water Lilies gave his purpose meaning and energy whenever he doubted himself.

Just do it Don’t procrastinate until you think you have clarity, focus on what you know of your direction, not troubling yourself on what you don’t know. Get to the point where the only way to know more is to commit to a small course of action that’s aligned with what you know. Clarity comes from results, it comes from being engaged in the world, not from thinking alone in a corner. Take small steps to the edge of what you know. More will be shown to you. Monet had a big vision but took small steps. There’s a valuable lesson in that practice for your startup.

Jettison the need for perfectionism Perfection is just terror. Beneath perfectionism’s control is fear of judgment, fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of criticism. Don’t think of perfection. Think progress. Think done. Think scrappy first draft. Allow your imperfect self, imperfect product to go out the door, and meet the world. Only through real responses you will know where and how to improve. 

Monet destroyed endless paintings in a journey of discovery in crafting Water Lilies, because they didn’t feel right. Creating his life’s work as a life journey, unforgiving in what he wanted to achieve for himself, not driven by perfection but purpose.

Don’t take yourself too seriously By definition, building your life’s work takes a lifetime. Don’t burden the journey with unnecessary seriousness. If it isn’t fun, what’s the point? Bring fulfilment and light-heartedness into everything you do. If you screw up, admit your mistake, learn your lesson laugh at yourself, and move on. Think about the analogy of the hot air balloon and the sandbag: the sky is waiting for you, but first you need to ditch the baggage. 

Track in the moment and the future, not in your memories Whenever you set the intention to do your life’s work, note the starting time. When you get interrupted or stop, note the ending time. Tallies based on your recollection of the day are bound to exaggerate. Extended concentration is what you’re after. Small chunks don’t count, you need to dedicate wholehearted commitment and focus. Thirty minutes is a good minimum length, but an hour or ninety minutes is even better as a meaningful chunk.

Monet spent entire days experimenting and leaning into the future, lost in the enthralling challenge of his purpose. For a startup founder, this equates to being in the zone. We know the physical and mental pulse of fulfilment this creates, so make it happen.

Either you run your startup day, or the day runs you. Be fierce and original in your work so it is clearly shaped by your purpose and frames your day, your week, your month. As a startup founder, struggle doesn’t make success happen, struggle can prevent success. Don’t confuse having a startup with having a life, you must balance your effort, not your time;  you will never feel truly satisfied by your work until you are satisfied by your life.

You can’t have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you. We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to do’ list, and that can be done, like Monet, by having a life’s work as your personal meaning for your startup.

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