How do you make life and work a work of art?
How we choose what we do, and how we approach it…will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.
Sometimes it seems that my life is a formless blur, especially when I lose my focus in a flurry of chaotic busyness, and I’m plagued by a steady stream of necessary yet unenjoyable tasks that don’t seem to get finished, stalling creative projects that would give me a lot more satisfaction…if only I could get to them. This isn’t art; this is a tedious mess! And worse, I’ve lost my flow!
Art for me is soul food. Art-making is meditation in action. It nourishes my craving for beauty, clarity and harmony. By beauty, I mean aesthetics, that is, the beauty of meaning-making, when all the parts come together to create a whole, or when clues are combined to solve a mystery. It’s about finding elegant solutions to problems we face. It’s the profound simplicity we discover on the other side of complexity, once we’ve dug through our messes.
One of my first influences in art was my grade school teacher Fritz Brandtner , a well-known and influential artist in Montreal who encouraged us to make abstract art. (Brandtner’s painting on the left was done in 1955) Abstract art taught me to distill the world around me into its essential components, and get to the heart of the matter. This has become an important problem-solving skill in business and life in general.
A work of art is always a condensation of complex reality. So art can be a means through which one learns to perceive an intricate solution through a simplified image.”
— Dr Thomas Bechtler, Director of Credit Suisse Group (ADR)
How can you bring more artistry into life and work?
Artists begin their work with intention and purpose. They have some idea about the end product they want to create, whether it is a song, a poem, a painting or a movie. A student filmmaker I know made the mistake of shooting a film with cast and crew before he had worked out his script. What happened? Endless re-shoots, wasted time and effort, and a mess of film to edit into some kind of cohesion. He learned clarity of purpose keeps creativity on track.
Dr Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist best known for his research on creativity, and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He says that the metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel during a peak experience. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as “aesthetic rapture.” Flow is characterized by effortless concentration and enjoyment. We are completely absorbed in an activity and time disappears.
To achieve flow, we need the right balance of skill and challenge. If a task is too challenging we experience fear, and if its not challenging enough, we experience boredom. In my experience, being in the flow includes the natural oscillation between action and reflection, or as Frank Sinatra put it so eloquently: “Do, be, do, be do.” Reflection and contemplation might involve meditation, journal writing and day dreaming.
To establish more flow in your work, the first step is to prioritize and focus on what is most important. Devote your best thinking time for tasks that most need your creativity and focused attention. And don’t allow interruptions.
Artistry can be defined as having mastered a skill sufficiently enough so that you don’t have to think about it. Artistry is the bridge between concept and craft. Once you have mastered a skill you can transcend technicalities and focus on creating, inventing and innovating. Artists constantly work their craft by developing their skills. In order to take on more challenge and stay in the flow, you may need to learn new skills. Mastery is what separates the virtuoso from the technician, in music, dance, theatre, and art. Don’t get caught up in creating a masterpiece. Focus instead on developing your craft in whatever art form appeals to you. Slow down and become absorbed in the process. When you relax and enter that place of flow, you will notice your mind quiet down, and creative imagination start to bubble up.
Take the lessons you learn through the arts, and apply them to leadership at work. Are you a technician or a virtuoso?
Through art, we experience certain kinds of truth, including:
- emotional truth,
- cultural values,
- sensory experience,
- sense-making, and
Notice the delicious language used by artists and the differences in aesthetics that drive their work:
That inner voice has both gentleness and clarity. So to get to authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something. —Meredith Monk, composer
My art is an attempt to reach beyond the surface appearance. I want to see growth in wood, time in stone, nature in a city, and I do not mean its parks but a deeper understanding that a city is nature too-the ground upon which it is built, the stone with which it is made. —Andy Goldsworthy, environmental sculptor
Both the grand and the intimate aspects of nature can be revealed in the expressive photograph. Both can stir enduring affirmations and discoveries, and can surely help the spectator in his search for identification with the vast world of natural beauty and the wonder surrounding him. —Ansel Adams, photographer
My aim in painting is to create pulsating, luminous, and open surfaces that emanate a mystic light, in accordance with my deepest insight into the experience of life and nature. —Hans Hofmann, abstract painter
I was not ready for abstraction. I clung to earth and her dear shapes, her density, her herbage, her juice. I wanted her volume, and I wanted to hear her throb. —Emily Carr, painter
In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love. —Marc Chagall, painter
Each of these statements illustrates how intertwined life and art are. Art here is not divorced from life, but rather informs life. We can enrich are own life and work, by incorporating the aesthetics of emotion, sensory experience, values, and sense-making into daily experiences.
Artistic qualities such as: Seeing with new eyes, sensing and perceiving, mastery, finding beauty, meaning, elegance, rhythm, melody, harmony, and composition — can be applied to all aspects of our lives.
Reflect on these qualities and ask yourself which ones are present in your life and which ones are missing. How would you describe the rhythm of your life and work? How could you achieve more elegance in your work? How can you enhance the aesthetic experience of your customers?
When I coach people undergoing a transition in their lives, I encourage them to be imaginative. Rather than focusing on problems, we focus on possibilities, and finding artful solutions.
If you could design your future, what would it look like? How would you compose the different elements? What does it take to lead an artful life?
Creative expression is one of the keys to living and working artfully. Imagination without action doesn’t make you creative; it only makes you imaginative. Action brings ideas to life. With imagination, observation, reflection and practice, you can transform the mundane into the artful.
 From Art for Work by Marjory Jacobson, HBR press, 1993
Arts based learning in business
- Applying the arts to organisational learning
- Case Studies: Using the arts as a catalyst for transformation in business
Arts based meeting facilitation
A growing number of leaders in industry, education and government, are choosing artistic processes in concert with traditional forms of problem-solving to help people engage more effectively with the complex challenges we face today.