What five things can innovators learn from artists? In this long read, designer and educator Maureen Carroll talks about her experiences of bringing the world of artists and the world of business together and the benefits that can unfold. 

My son Pat is a young jazz musician living and working in New York City. He’s figuring out how to do what he loves as he confronts the very real economic challenges of making a living as an artist. The corporate world is hungry for innovation and looks to experts in business schools, think tanks and high-flying start-ups. But as I watched the way Pat approached his work — with passion, rigor, intensity, risk-taking and resiliency — I began to wonder what it would be like if the world of artists and the world of business came together. What might we learn from the real experts in creativity — the artists who live it 24/7? I was excited by this possibility and created a program called Serendipity Studio: Where Innovation & Art Meet.

I wanted people to have the chance to be creative, not just talk about creativity. So we danced, we sang, we wrote poetry, we did improv, we painted, we created stage sets, and we performed jazz percussion. And then we thought about how this visceral experience of what it means to rediscover and find joy in creativity might become part of our working lives. I wanted people to leave Serendipity Studio with tools and strategies to cultivate creativity in themselves and in their organizations. I believe that the people who drive creativity in an organization need the ability to effectively collaborate, be resilient, be empathetic, and recognize and seize opportunities to lead change — and that artists have these qualities in abundance. As we brought these two worlds together, here’s what we learned about creativity.

1. You have to practice

Artists invest in perfecting the skills of their craft whether they are drawing a line, holding a pose, or choosing the right words to tell a story. In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes the “10,000- Hour Rule”; he feels that the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill is to practice the correct way, for a total of 10,000 hours. Author Tina Seelig describes how creativity is not a gift some of us are born with, but is a skill that all of us can learn. I’ve seen novice brainstormers who struggled to generate eight ideas in five minutes become fluent and fluid idea generators with practice. And as we have learned from artists, practice means rigor, attention to detail, and endless repetitions that lead to mastery.

2. You have to take big risks that give you fear in the pit of your stomach —not intellectual risks where you are playing with someone else’s money

In today’s world, just choosing to be an artist is a huge risk. Paying tuition to get a degree in the arts with no clear guaranteed outcome or path to a job is daunting. You are looking at the remote possibility of artist- subsidized housing, supplementing your income with minimum wage jobs and an increasingly small number of arts grants. Yet thousands of students choose to major in the arts. What drives artists to take risks? It seems like the more we discover about the lives artists are leading, the more we want to become their champions and root for them. Their work and their lives make us wonder what our own lives would be like if we took those kinds of really big and scary risks. What could we become? As Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Artists show us what it is like to live life in the bold.

3. You have to be open to inspiration from strange and wonderful places

Inspiration comes from a creative collision of textures, flavors, words and sounds. Sometimes it’s hard to find in a world filled with projects, tasks, and work that has to get done. Yet artists look at the world with fresh eyes. Education researcher Elliott Eisner described how “…only through painting are we able to know autumn in ways that only the visual arts make possible. Through poetry we can know autumn in ways that only poems can convey.” Artists teach us how to cultivate a sensitivity to the world around us and lookacross boundaries. That means immersing ourselves in new experiences. It can be as small as tasting sushi or as big as trekking up Mount Everest. As Dr. Seuss, tells us in his book Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” Artists inspire us to take the journey.

4. You have to be deeply and meaningfully collaborative

You can’t collaborate when it is all about you. You have to be present, listen, and react to those around you. Together, you create something that would never be possible alone. In one of our sessions, we listened to the ever-changing rhythms of our jazz percussionist as we painted. We responded to what he did, and this shaped how and what we created. In a diamond dance, participants form the shape of a diamond, and one person takes the lead. The other three dancers follow along, but then, without any prompting, the lead changes. This change of lead happens over and over, and although at first it is awkward, it eventually transforms into a seamless and fluid dance…This is teamwork at its best. The most productive innovation sessions happen when you end up with an idea and you don’t really know who owned it because it evolved from the interactions in the room. And most importantly, you don’t care.

5. You have to have mentors and yet listen to your own voice

It’s a delicate balance. Almost every artist has been influenced by a mentor- that’s how you develop your skills. But at a certain point, you come to own your craft. It’s a process of constant iteration and feedback. It’s about trusting your instincts. Amy Jen Su and Muriel Wilkins, co-authors of Own the Room, talk about the need for business leaders to have a “signature voice”— a means of self-expression that is uniquely and distinctly your own. But how do you find that voice? Collaborating with artists who play music with you, dance with you, paint with you, and celebrate with you gives you the opportunity to rediscover your creative voice. When you have an artistic experience, it changes you. You remember when the world was your playground.
Artists are constantly challenging assumptions as they push boundaries and create new ways of looking at the world. You might be inspired by how a musician composes a new work and moves between an idea in his head to a melody on a keyboard. Perhaps the way the artist sketches as she thinks might help you bring that idea that has been brewing in the back of your mind to life. Sometimes the simple physical movement of a joyful dance can crank up your creativity. Artists show us what it is like to live a life filled with rigor, risk, passion, imagination and joy. Let’s invite them into the workplace and watch serendipity happen.

Maureen Carroll, Ph.D., is the Founder of Lime Design and lecturer in Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) where she co-teaches Creativity & Innovation: Innovators by Design and in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education where she co- teaches Educating Young STEM Thinkers. She is also the Director of Stanford University’s REDlab (Research in Education & Design), a partnership between the d.school and School of Education. Carroll has a Ph.D. in Language, Literacy & Culture from the University of California at Berkeley

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