Without Rules of Other People

herb and dorothyThis is a lesson in can’ts. We’re quick to use that word, aren’t we? Never in the history of language have there been four letters so detrimental to process as c-a-n (apostrophe)-t.

You said it yesterday. I know you did.

I did. Which is why I’m going to introduce you to Herb and his wife Dorothy. That’s them in the picture.

Born in 1922 and 1935 respectively, they’ve seen a thing or two as the years have gone by. Dorothy was a librarian with the Brooklyn Public Library and Herb an employee of the U.S. Postal Service. They’re modest people who live their lives in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment. Salaries of two civil workers.

Yet between 1962 and 1992, this couple amassed the largest collection of New Art (including Conceptual and Minimalist styles) in the world. 4,782 works of art, to be exact. And it wasn’t what they set out to do.

Herb and Dorothy just loved art. They loved the artists creating it. It became a running joke in the New York City art circles that, should you be lucky enough to get a call from the Vogels, you could pay rent that month.

But how did they do it – this librarian and this postal worker. When you consider that their collection holds pieces from greats such as Picasso and Lichtenstein (among countless others), first thought is bound to be that they couldn’t afford to acquire that caliber of art on their income.

But they did. And here’s how.

They had one rule: each piece they bought had to be able to be carried home or delivered by the artist personally. By building relationships with the artists, they were able to acquire a large majority of their collection on installment payments. Dorothy was a meticulous bookkeeper and never stiffed the artists. The artists came to respect the Vogels and knew they were good for the money. It was a collection made possible by relationships.

And seen as a bit impossible by those in Herb and Dorothy’s life.

An interview with Herb’s sister told of how he was a (gasp) zoot-suiter when he was young, dressing in a conspicuous fashion that their father did not approve of. She also felt that much of his “rebellion” came from not finishing high school. To which Herb had this to say:

I hated school. I hated people telling me what to do. Hated it. Whatever I did, I did without rules of other people. I did it because I wanted to do it.

Without rules of other people.

What have you done without the rules of others being your guiding light? When’s the last time you forged your own way, saying to hell with the comments from the peanut gallery?

Herb’s love for art meant creating a path defined by his own rules — a path that brought tears to my eyes at a few points.

See, there’s this documentary called Dorothy and Herb. I watched it the other night in sheer awe. At one point, Dorothy is talking about how she can count on one hand the number of times the two of them have been apart since they got married. That’s the way they wanted it. He nods. Agrees. Beautiful.

And then there’s the moment where Herb and Dorothy go to visit the National Gallery of Art.

In 1992, they decided to donate their entire collection (housed in their one-bedroom apartment, all 4782 pieces of it) to The National Gallery of Art. Each year, they make a trip to visit their collection.

The scene that made me tear-up was when they walked into the lobby of the gallery and there for the world to see is a giant carved wall, naming the largest patrons of the Gallery.

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel are the topmost entry. Dorothy pointed, “Look, Herbie — look.” And they smiled.

There’s nothing in this world that keeps you from doing what it is you want to do. Income, location, birthright…nothing. Herb and Dorothy didn’t set out to build a 4000+ piece art collection. They followed a shared passion. They met people. They built relationships. They created a memorable life, for themselves and the artists.

And for us, too.

So what will you do today to look at your path and see what you could accomplish without “rules of other people”? The boundaries you set for yourself are your own. Even the Vogels had boundaries. But those boundaries never kept them from living a life they love and following a path that’s created a legacy. We all hate people telling us what to do and how to live, so why not pull a Herb and do the things you want to do? It’s the only way to create a legacy. Can’ts will only keep us from where we want — and need — to go. There are no can’ts in this lifetime, really. There are just paths people haven’t thought of quite yet.

We each have a legacy.

What’s yours?

Bill Dorman
Bill Dorman

Cool story w/ a good message; thanks for sharing. I had to do a double take when the clip started because the two women in the center of the room were so tall; I had to make sure it wasn't part of an art prop or something...:). 

Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef
Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

This one's a keeper, Erika. Shall be sharing widely with my peeps today as the antidote to all that mess about "I don't have enough time, money...waaahh."  And looking forward to seeing you in NorCal later this month!

TJ McCue
TJ McCue

Erika, you are amazing. This is a wonderful post full of inspiration for all of us. As a biz owner who helps new business owners, it makes me think how I can make a real difference in their lives. How I can live a life of service. I used to say to myself -- "build a business that scales" but I've been saying "Build a business that serves..." a whole lot more lately. 


I had to stop reading at "they decided to donate their collection" - because I started to hear Really loud circus music. Jigga what? That's incredible. Now I have to go find this documentary. And you know I've heard of the Vogels before, in passing,mand thought they were big shot fat cats... Wow.

Barbara Goldberg
Barbara Goldberg

This is such a though provoking piece! 'Can't' has become such an easy word for people to use making it an easy out for them. When you drop off the apostrophe t your life becomes so much more enriched.

Joel MacCollam
Joel MacCollam

What a wonderful report on two fantastic people, and what a profound life lesson to be reminded of.  We get so hogtied to Earth that we forget "the sky's the limit" for so many parts of life. Thanks, Erika.


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