Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso had a lot in common. They each had a distinctive style of painting that has become immediately identifiable. Think of “The Starry Night” or “Three Musicians.” In fact, both artists have become sui generis, and their paintings have sold for tens of millions of dollars. But there’s one huge difference between the two painters: van Gogh died a pauper while Picasso left an estate estimated at $750 million. And the reason, according to Gregory Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, is that van Gogh was a loner and the charismatic Picasso was an active member of multiple social circles. To use the current vernacular of social networking science, van Gogh was a solitary “node” who had few connections, whereas Picasso was a “hub” who had embedded himself in a vast network that stretched across various social lines.
Berns discusses the vast differences between the two artists in his new book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Harvard Business Press, 2008). According to Berns, “van Gogh’s primary connection to the art world was through his brother, and this connection did not feed directly into the money that could have turned him into a living success.” In contrast, Picasso’s myriad connections provided him with that access to commercial riches. “[Picasso’s] wide-ranging social network, which included artists, writers and politicians, meant that he was never more than a few people away from anyone of importance in the world.”
To be sure, there were many reasons why van Gogh died penniless. His mental illness was certainly a factor (which, incidentally, might have contributed to his being a loner). But the larger point for corporations is this: How do you connect talented loners to networks so that the creativity of those individuals can be tapped? In other words, how do you ensure that your innovative geniuses are less like van Gogh and more like Picasso? In Iconoclast, Berns also presents the cautionary tale of Edwin Howard Armstrong, another creative genius. Armstrong invented FM radio but, according to Berns, he lacked the social networking skills to sell the idea during his lifetime. Years after Armstrong’s death — he committed suicide in 1954 after patent disputes with AT&T Corp. and RCA Corp. as well as a U.S.