How often do you do what you can’t do in order to learn how to do it?

Today is September 14 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you do what you can’t do in order to learn how to do it?” People who navigate the chaos gravitate towards doing those things that they are unable to do.

Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, arguably among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art, made this observation in an 1885 letter to painter Anthon van Rappard. At that time van Gogh who was immersed in the creation of the landmark canvas “The Potato Eaters.” Van Gogh wrote:

“The work in question, painting the peasants, is such laborious work that the extremely weak would never even embark on it. And I have at least embarked on it and have laid certain foundations, which isn’t exactly the easiest part of the job! And I’ve grasped some solid and useful things in drawing and in painting, more firmly than you think, my dear friend. But I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.”

This theme of learning by doing is found throughout historical writings. One of the most common references is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics written in 350 B.C. In his publication Aristotle begins Book II with a discussion on moral and intellectual virtue in the first paragraph. He then writes in the second paragraph how individuals can achieve intellectual and moral virtue by practice since “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Here are the first two paragraphs of Book II from Nicomachean Ethics:

“Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them and are made perfect by habit.


Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” (emphasis added)

Aristotle’s observation that “Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them and are made perfect by habit…..for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them…” refers to the way we treat each other, the manner in which we treat ourselves, and the tasks we choose to pursue in life. In virtue and career, we learn by doing first what we are unable to do.

As you navigate the chaos today consider asking yourself how often you are learning something you are unable to do so that you may be able to do it. Today’s reflection also reminds us that anyone, at any point in their life, has the potential to achieve a higher sense of self if they are willing to put in the work required to do that which they were previously unable to do.