My favorite painting in Munich’s ‘New Pinacotheca’ is The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg. It shows a penniless artist in a crappy, run-down attic apartment.
The Poor Poet is one of Spitzweg’s earliest compositions after becoming a full-time painter in 1833. Today, it is his most famous work. Likely because in it, he managed to capture the ambiguity of his own life.
Spitzweg was born into a wealthy family and eventually launched his career off the comfort of a large inheritance. At the same time, his father forced him through a pharmacist education and he was entirely self-taught. All his career, he pursued humorous themes, contrary to the common-sense nature of art in his era, the Biedermeier period.
Like Spitzweg, The Poor Poet is a puzzling figure. He’s huddled up in blankets, covering a hole in the ceiling with an umbrella, burning his own writings to stay warm. But he doesn’t look flustered. Is he choosing his poverty-stricken existence? Does it inspire him? Did he end up there because society is misjudging his genius? Or was he just too much of a snob about his own art?
The answers to all these questions are left to the viewer’s imagination, which makes it a great painting. Another reason I like this picture, however, is that it’s a reminder that in today’s world, no artist must starve.
Life Is Full of Networks
Sometimes, the past deserves a second chance. That’s the tagline of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History. In one episode, he examines why philanthropy in education tends to center around the richest and most elite schools, as opposed to those that actually need it. To piece the answer together, he turns to a book about soccer.
Taking a page out of The Numbers Game, Gladwell frames education as a ‘weak-link problem.’ This means the overall outcome depends much more on giving access to those, who have none, than on providing high-class students with even better resources. The analogy in sports is that “a football team is only as strong as its weakest link.” Look at this year’s world cup results.
Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, all world-class, yet none of their teams survived the quarter-finals. Because soccer is not about having one or two superstars, it’s usually the team with the fewest mistakes that wins. Plus, even the best striker can only score if the ball makes it to the front. Basketball is a counter-example. One Michael Jordan can do some serious damage. He might singlehandedly win a game, regardless of how the other players perform.
The beauty of this concept is that you can use it as an almost universal lens to work on your perspective. Life is full of networks and all networks have links.
Your body is a weak-link structure; one tiny, but critical part fails, and the whole system shuts down. Traffic is a weak-link phenomenon; a single bad driver can block an entire highway for hours. School is a strong-link game; you only need the exact right answers to pass any exam. And so on.
But there’s one area where applying this idea is especially interesting: work.
The Difference Between Your Career and Your Job
When companies vie for job applicants, they love to promise that “with us, you won’t just have a job, you’ll have a career!” What intrigued graduates take that to mean is that the prospects of working for said employer won’t be limited to the current gig. Promise me I can grow, and I’ll take you to the sunlight. That type of thing. The reality, however, is often different.
Your current job may be a weak-link game. In Germany, for example, waiters often split tips. Whatever the collected total, everyone gets the same share. In this scenario, positive outliers matter, but the average is held down by the lowest contributions. If you’re a strong link, you lose. Most jobs are like that. Rewards don’t hinge on singular results, but on the team’s output as a whole.
That’s because employment itself is also a weak-link problem. It’s better to make sure everyone has a job than giving particularly great ones to a select few. Missing opportunities at their firms are one reason that nowadays, people change jobs around every four years. Here’s another:
Your job may not be a strong-link game, but your career always is.
Career Engine Optimization
The internet has largely democratized the resources of building a business. Since fewer people can do more with less, the number of small firms has gone through the roof. New kinds of jobs pop up left and right, so people sample.
That’s smart. It’s the equivalent of creating more links. And since you only need one great career move to potentially land where you want to go, people maximize their chances. Think of Youtube discoveries like Justin Bieber or the first employees at Facebook. Those are extreme examples, but on a micro level, your and my career will play out just the same.
Another thing you could do is to get a strong-link job, where you can drastically increase your income, fame, and whatever else with a few good results. All artists have this. But there’s also commission-based work, like real estate and most sales, or equity compensation, from working at a startup or handling investment deals. Those are good bets too.
But the best thing you can do, by far, does not depend on job modalities at all.
The Human Lag in Reacting to Change
Back in Spitzweg’s days, The Poor Poet was the norm. His painting was as much a caricature as it was a critical comment on society at the time. It’s easy to imagine Spitzweg wouldn’t have chosen the artist’s path, had it not been for his family money. With few options, small personal networks, and the excessive importance of local reputation, playing it safe was the way to go.
In the past 200 years, however, the world has changed more drastically than ever before. Another thing the internet has democratized is the ability to create links from the comfort of your home. Not just actively, but letting them come to you. It is 30 years old, but this most people still don’t understand.
When Spitzweg first presented The Poor Poet to the critics at Munich’s art club in 1839, they weren’t impressed. It took until two years after his death for the painting to make it into a museum. Imagine he could have posted it on Instagram. Or blogged about the process. Someone might have reached out.
I’m surrounded by young, smart, tech-savvy graduates all day, but most of their link-building efforts seem limited to updating their LinkedIn when they complete another internship. I’m sure most of them will do just fine, but it’s a little as if they insist on being poor poets in a world that offers every opportunity for that to change.
How to Have a Successful Career: As You Shout Into the Woods…
I wholeheartedly believe the single most valuable thing you can do to get everything out of your career that you want is this:
It may be easy to say for a writer like me, but I mean it. And you don’t have to be creative. You can just document your day. You’re interesting. So is where you live. If you love accounting, by all means, keep us posted on the news from that world. Or maybe you don’t feel like tinkering in public. Good. Tinker in your garage and then showcase what you made online.
Whatever you do, don’t limit your participation in the biggest network in the history of the world to lurking behind a screen. The German version of “what goes around, comes around” is “as you shout into the woods, so it echoes back.” Only those who put effort in will receive something in return.
Most importantly, if you want to have a successful career, treat it like the strong-link game it actually is. Don’t fall for the victim narrative of gatekeepers preventing change. They’re still trying, but you can choose to ignore them. That’s a modern-day luxury The Poor Poet didn’t have.
There’s one more reason I like the painting so much: It is a wonderful reminder to work hard and stay humble. As long as we do that, we’ll always be our own strongest link. And there’s nothing ambiguous about that.