The Internet has Become a Graveyard of Wasted Content
We founded Graveyard Innovation because we intend to do something about it
How many Van Goghs ended up in the Graveyard?”
This was the question my mind was frantically screaming at me when I woke up in the middle of the night almost a year ago. A few days before, I’d come across a story about Vincent Van Gogh, and not knowing much about him I quickly found myself mildly (read extremely) obsessed. I learned he was perhaps the most well read painter of all time, wrote letters which demonstrate his literary talents to be on the level of Tolstoy, and rescued a woman who worked as a prostitute and was pregnant when he discovered her outside in the cold. When I read this last story, I teared up. The only thing I admire more about Van Gogh than the courage he displays in his commitment to create — no matter what — is the courage he shows in refusing to trade his humanity.
That night, when I sat up in bed, it wasn’t Van Gogh who was haunting me. Or rather, it wasn’t Vincent Van Gogh who was haunting me. It was a lesser known Van Gogh. A Van Gogh I didn’t even know existed until I started reading about Vincent. Her name was Joanna. Joanna Van Gogh. Vincent’s sister-in-law and wife of his beloved brother Theo. And while her name may be lost to history, her legacy most certainly is not. Without Joanna, not a single one of us would know of the man who is widely considered one of the greatest painters ever to have lived. His paintings would have rotted or been sold for next to nothing. Because the world looked at Vincent and saw a pathetic loser.
But when Joanna looked at Vincent, and his art, she saw something quite different. She saw a man producing work that would someday be celebrated all around the world. In other words, where the world saw Vincent, Johanna saw Van Gogh — the only man who seemed to understand what the Stars (and the sunflowers) really looked like. She was so passionate about this that after Vincent died, and her husband Theo Van Gogh six months later, she spent the next 25 years of her life working to bring Van Gogh’s art to the world, while taking care of her son, and traveling all over Europe.
Johanna didn’t start out to be an entrepreneur anymore than Vincent started out to be an artist. Regardless, together they form one of the most powerful entrepreneurial teams ever in history.
My Childhood Graveyard
“How many Van Gogh’s ended up in the Graveyard?”
Returning to the question that haunted me that night, as I considered the question, I remembered that when I was a child there were two places I spent much of my free time. One was the library — where, at 12 years old, I once insisted the librarians create a volunteer job for me — which is a kind of knowledge graveyard. The other, was an actual Graveyard that accompanied the grounds of a private school in the small town where I grew up.
Why the library? Why the graveyard? I wish I could say it was because my love for poetry left me with a penchant for the darkly mysterious, but I was more R. L. Stine than Emily Dickinson at that point. Where I grew up, being original wasn’t exactly celebrated. In fact, being yourself, when you had a self that was gay, loved Tracy Chapman, looked ridiculous in PE, excelled at debate (yes…debate), and spent more than a few hours pouring over the feminist works of Dworkin, Brownmiller, Faludi, Butler, and MacKinnon felt like a pretty big liability.
The bullies that terrorized my middle and high school years and left me devastated emotionally, with even less self-esteem than I’d had going in (which wasn’t exactly overflowing at the start) were surprisingly superstitious and unsurprisingly not that interested in reading books.
The library fascinated me because in those stacks I discovered entire worlds I hadn’t known existed, powerful counter narratives that told a very different story than the one I was hearing in history class, and armed me with a potent understanding of how and why gathering information is an essential part of success.
The graveyard was powerful to me for another reason. It became, for me, a kind of spiritual haven. I would often wonder about the people whose names I read on the headstones. Who were they? What had their lives been like? Were they afraid when faced with death? Did they have any regrets? Had they lived the lives they wanted? What would they tell me if they were here now? What wisdom would they pass along? What disappointment would they live through all over again? What success would they have traded away for something else?
We tend to think of the Graveyards as places of sorrow, pain, and death. For my younger self, a boy who ran away simply to try and find some safety from a world that seemed unfair and scary, the Graveyard was a place of possibility and meditation…a place of ideas. It is in the Graveyard that I came to understand that ideas are never truly lost — just preserved — waiting for the right time to re-emerge or for the right person to come along who will have the courage to turn the faint flicker of an idea into the roaring blaze of change.
Perhaps more than anything, Graveyards allow us to embrace, rather than struggle against, the fundamental contradictions and cognitive dissonances we live with as humans. We all know these contradictions. The joy of birth and the searing pain of death. One season rolling into the next with barely enough time to notice. Our capacity as individuals and collectives to create or to destroy with awesome consequence. Of course, the biggest one of all, living with the knowledge of our own mortality.
“You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place and that’s the graveyard…I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost.” Viola Davis
The Internet Graveyard
“How many Van Gogh’s ended up in the Graveyard?”
When I look around today, it seems the internet has become a graveyard of wasted content littered with the bones of ideas prematurely abandoned or inappropriately tended.
How many ideas were lost because someone compromised their mission to expediency or brevity? How many innovations were snuffed out by conventional wisdom? How many people are terrified to try again because they feel ashamed and guilty they didn’t make it work the first or second time they tried? How many intelligent conversations never even took place because we were all writing “content” for Google’s algorithm rather than engaging the most important questions of the day?
What unexplored idea is nagging at the little girl or boy inside of you begging to take just a small peek down the rabbit hole right passed the Graveyard? What innovation-so-big-it-scares-the-crap-out-of-you got lost under a pile of who-the-hell-am-I? What potential business model or product experiment was never even tried because being new, it wasn’t yet tried-and-true (hence the point of the experiment) or signature-ized? What authenticities became a cynicism? What thoughts became a doubt? What bridges became walls all because someone didn’t have the vision to see the world through your eyes?
I don’t spend a lot of time at Graveyard talking about what I can do for people, because I’m so much more interested in what they…in what you…can give to the world.
I trust you. I know you’re capable of doing it with..or without us. You don’t need Graveyard Innovation. But you might want us. At least that’s my gamble. I’m hoping that some of you, enough of you, or even just the exact right few of you, will want to walk, play, and create with us.
When I found myself exhausted, depleted, and empty with nowhere to go except back to sleep, either on my couch or consciously by shifting into denial and defending the things in my life from misleading business models to dysfunctional relationship habits…I chose to do something different. We need more people to do the same.
The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry our their dream. Les Brown
The Richest Place on Earth
“How many Van Gogh’s ended up in the Graveyard?”
There is something profoundly wrong when people are talking about “changing the world” and what they mean by that is creating email spam. I’d spent my entire life asking, “What do I want my life (idea…business…etc.) to be?” The interesting part? I got all of it, and it drove me to the brink. Now, I wanted to ask a different question. Instead of asking, “What do I want this business to be?” I began to ask, “What does this business want to be?”
“What does my idea want to become?” I want you to ask yourself the same question. What does your idea, business, relationship, life want to be?
If, “Truth is a pathless land,” as the great spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti remarked, then why are so many of us trying to find our truths by beating the well-worn paths of what’s been tried rather than daring to risk creating new paths that might lead to new businesses and new possibilities for our clients and communities.
There will always be compromisers, small thinkers, and people who espouse ideals they never seem to actualize because as Hillary said in her college commencement address to a class of graduating Wellesley women, “Fear is always with us…” True. It’s what Hillary said next that gives me chills because it feels like it was written for today, “Fear is always with us…but we just simply don’t have time for it.”
When I began this company, it seemed impossible, and people would say as much to me. I always responded with a smile, and my heart felt so full of love in these moments, and said, “You know…you are probably right. That honestly makes a lot of sense. But I’m going to try it anyway.”
We may be afraid. We might fail. It may not work. There are certainly no guarantees or proven promises of anything in this world, least of all in business at this moment in time. I do not know what the future holds. But what I do know is that there is a world of people who will lift themselves up, if only someone cares enough to reach out a hand. I know there’s a world of people who will shine, if only someone takes the time to truly see them. And there’s a whole world of people, each with beautiful voices, who will sing in harmony if only someone stops for the briefest of seconds on a day when everyone else is rushing White-rabbit style to get somewhere…to listen and to really hear.
I believe Johanna would have spent her life sharing Vincent’s art regardless of the results, the outcome. She, like Vincent understood that legacy isn’t about approval, it’s about finding the incredible power…the power to create…inside of ourselves and then having the courage to follow the north star of your deepest intuitive wisdom wherever it leads. She had no guarantee of success, and a very likely chance that she would fail, and yet one woman had the crazy, stupid, arrogant, and misguided belief that she could bring dear Vincent’s colors to the world. She believed that someday the world would come to know Vincent simply as Van Gogh.
The Graveyard may have become a Graveyard of wasted content, and it’s true that most people look at the Graveyard as a place of sorrow and pain, so perhaps we should mourn the lost content as buried wisdom to be retrieved by tomorrow’s digital archaeologists. Then again, ideas aren’t ever really lost in the Graveyard, just preserved. Patiently waiting for someone who knows what we know. Waiting for someone who knows that the Graveyard is the richest place on Earth.
If you’d like to read about the two personal insights that led me to close my consulting business and pursue Graveyard Innovation you can read the email I sent to my list here.