Art and Leadership: the power and purpose of creativity

I recently wrote an article called “The Myth of the Starving Artist—and what it can teach us about job security.” In it, I discuss how society’s attitude towards art parallels how people feel across industries about their jobs and companies. We’re in a culture that devalues creativity and values pursuing a paycheck over the purpose of what we do to earn that money.

The topic blew up on my social media accounts and I received responses from artists and non-artists alike. The most common feedback was on how the article challenged people’s existing assumptions on what is considered responsible or valuable to do for pay and with our lives.

Of course, recognizing the problem is only the first step. The responses made me start thinking about how to overcome this crippling mindset and stereotype, and how until we change it, we’ll continue to be at the mercy of what we’re given.

I won’t deny that we face a lot of obstacles. We can’t change the situation we’re dealt. But remember, we’re artists. We’re creative and resourceful, and so I’m writing today to figure out how we can collectively begin to shift the dialogue and culture we’re working in through the actions and decisions we make.

Paradigm Shift #1: Confidence is not a game. It’s a practice.

Your biases will determine not only how you think but also how you act and make decisions. A starving artist is not a confident person. The success of great work depends as much on confidence as talent, and that doesn’t just mean you need a better sales pitch.

Are you the most open-minded to new experiences when you are confident or insecure? If you expect to learn and further your skills as an artist, then you need to have confidence.

I often feel conflicted about campaigns like “support local artists.” I understand the intent, but I also think it perpetuates this idea that small is weak and that people are a charity case. But to create is to believe that you have something inside of you worth sharing. More than support, you need challenge, opportunity, and cultivation to hone your craft and deliver your message in a meaningful way.

So don’t shoot yourself in the foot early on by believing the end game is the empty plate of self-sacrifice. You’ll start to live the image instead of making great art.

Paradigm Shift #2: It doesn’t matter what you do for a living. It does matter how you define yourself. You’re an artist, and creativity is your strength, not a weakness. Use it to your advantage.

Even when I was working a 9 to 5 desk job, I saw myself as an artist. Even when I was working long hours and returning home too tired to think creatively anymore, let alone make art, I viewed what I was doing as a stepping stone to where I wanted to be. First, I was saving money. Second, I treated my job and workplace like art, like things I wanted to change and improve. Creativity, strong observational skills, and the readiness to do hands-on work are all advantages in today’s job market.

My approach as an artist made me unique, so I stood out. My willingness to work hard, try different things, and question the way we did things opened up new opportunities for me, even (or maybe especially) because I worked at a 100-year-old company that was set in its ways. As a result, I gained valuable skills and mentorship that challenged my own assumptions about what work can be. I eliminated the original position I was hired for, which freed me up to take on new roles. I learned about business operations and how to streamline and reduce waste. I learned how to both make and break the rules of a business model that I could later compare to what I now see in the arts industry. Perhaps most importantly, I worked with a lot of people who think very differently than I do, and this taught me to balance being a challenger of the status quo with the goal of finding common ground. Few things are quite as valuable to cultivate in yourself (or as difficult to live up to or as uncommon to find in others) as knowing how to disrupt and also make peace.

In short, doing something other than art changed my thinking, and in the long run made me better as an overall person, and therefore better at art.

I see a lot of artists take jobs that they’re complacent with. They see what they do as just a way to scrape by so they can make their art in the after hours. They don’t question or care about their jobs. You don’t have to do what I did. You do need to find what works for you. Complacency is the enemy of creativity. The moment any of us ceases to question is also the moment we cease to be artists. Art challenges perceptions. When we cease to question, culture stagnates and becomes toxic.

Remember who you are. You’re an artist, in anything you’re doing. It’ll both change the way you look at your day job and make you better as an artist outside of that job.

Paradigm Shift #3: Recognize that you are a leader. Remember, also, that leadership is a practiced skill, and that there are both good and bad leaders.

In anything you do, you’re setting an example. When you lack confidence in your artwork and let others dictate how it is used, you’re not just sabotaging yourself. You’re sabotaging the way others around you think about themselves and about artists. You’re teaching clients that it’s okay to exploit you and other artists that it’s normal to be exploited.

Here’s an illustration of what I mean. Think about all the time we spend preparing our resumes and CVs for job interviews. Competing in any job market is difficult. With all of this running around, it’s no wonder the job search is so discouraging and administrative costs for businesses are so high. But applying to most jobs, at least, is free. Now let’s look at the barrier of entry for an art opportunity, either for a show, a residency, or a grant. Many of these have application fees. On top of needing a resume, a CV, and a letter of intent, you also need to supply a portfolio (which is proof of all the work you’ve already done, not just what you say you’re capable of like on a resume) and pay a fee for the privilege of getting somebody to judge you, never mind compensate you should they deem your work worthy of being seen.

When I think about the amount of legwork other artists and I have done, it’s insane. Besides making the art itself, we’ve all built our own websites, professionally framed and photographed our artwork, highly researched the topics we’re interested in, tested out all types of materials and mediums, juggled multiple demanding projects, etc. We’re web developers, archivists, academic researchers, philosophers, project managers, and more all wrapped into one being.

And yet the process of getting our artwork in front of the right audiences is extremely difficult and designed at the disadvantage of the artist. In an amazing amount of irony, no other industry requires you to waste quite as much time pitching what you do as the arts. Is it unfair and are there people in the system who are abusing their power? Yes, totally. But the starving artist mindset allows this to perpetuate. Remember what I wrote earlier about confidence? Until artists build confidence and learn to stand up for the value of their work, this isn’t going to change. True, there are lots of things you should say, “Yes,” to, especially considering how much creativity benefits from the collaborative spirit. But artists also need to know when to say, “No,” to exploitations disguised as opportunities.

Which brings me to my final point…

Paradigm Shift #4: To create well, you need to know when to stop creating.

One of the reasons the art world is so upside down is there’s just so much choice. We’re in a culture that pressures us to be busy, to produce more not out of need but rather to validate what we’re doing. Yes, it’s important to create for the sake of exploration and learning, but I shouldn’t need to explain to you the difference in how you feel when you’re creative versus staying busy, and truth be told, there’s a lot of crap out there as a result of the latter. The busier you are, the less time you have to think, and the end of thought is the end of artistry. The thought you put into your work is what makes it more than a pretty shell and gives it substance and power.

Going back to how art impacts your career, the strength of my identity as an artist is both what made me good at my former job and recognize when it was time to leave. It would have been really easy to stay either at that job or on the same career track. But I didn’t forget the big picture of who I am and what made me great at questioning things in the first place.

If I could boil all my reasoning for leaving my former job down to one thing, it’s that I recognized a mismatch between my own values and that of the leadership and work culture. I worked at a printing company, but we had no art on the walls. Our offices and machines were painted brown and grey. I would bring in my favorite books on the history of print to show the artistry of what we were doing, but neither my peers nor managers saw what I see in those books. The company has three work shifts to make the most of our manufacturing productivity. My coworkers were “always busy,” but very few were truly ever curious about the how’s and the why’s of what we were making. The leadership’s strategic goals included reducing lead times and growing the business by 30%. Yes, the leadership was pushing us to be more efficient with our resources, which I approved of, but the purpose wasn’t to open our time up for more curiosity and exploration or to go home and spend time with our families. It was to be able to do more work in less time, and therefore take on more work (anyone ever heard of Jevons paradox?). The company is sales-driven, and while the bottom line is important for all businesses, a business driven by sales is led by the dollar, not by the craft.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with those goals and desires. But I realized that it would be a long time, if it even happens in the span of my career, that the leadership and culture of that company would become one that values art and its role in changing the way we see and live. It wasn’t a place where I could grow anymore, not in the way I needed or would have made the best of what my creativity could do for my colleagues and mentors. In the long run, I would have been doing them and myself a disservice by staying to do work that I didn’t believe in.

If you’ve noticed something throughout this article, at a certain point, it’s not so much about the art as the people we become because of it. The ability to create great art comes from both a great awareness of yourself and what surrounds you.

That awareness is also what gives you the strength of voice to be able to say this is–and this is not the work for me–for the right motivations. That’s not something a lot of people ever learn how to do, but I bet you the world would look quite different if more of us did.

What you create has power. How you see yourself will determine the way that power gets used. So I leave you with this. Will you continue to see yourself as the starving and the disempowered, and let others use your talent to build a world that you can neither believe nor survive in? Or will you choose to believe that you, as an artist, are powerful, with the skills, the mind, and the message for producing great work, the kind of work that makes you a leader of the creative culture we can become?

**The cover image is “The Substance of Your Beauty” (formerly entitled “For Your Charming Lack of Content”), 20 x 30 inch ink & watercolor drawing by Jenie Gao.

**This post has also since been republished on The Abundant Artist.

The myth of the starving artist–and what it can teach us about job security

“What do you do?”

This is the number one small talk question we ask people, on par with discussing the weather. It’s a question we either don’t care about at all, because most people hate their jobs, or use to size up other people.

Are we on the same tier? Are you also in a dead end job? Can we commiserate? Are you a baller and crushing your career? Can I puff up my chest and impress you? Can I outweigh you? Can I leverage you? Are we in totally different ponds? All right, have a nice life, then.

“I’m an artist,” I tell people.

This generates a whole range of reactions.

“Oh.” Awkward pause. “Like, for a living?”

“Yep.” Full stop. No explanation. Sometimes, I’ll add, “I’m still figuring it out. I quit my corporate job a year ago.”

“It must be nice, getting to live your dream.” This is a good indication that the conversation won’t continue in a meaningful way.

Things can definitely go better than that, and can even go extraordinarily well.

But (yes, there’s a but) here’s the dish. I almost never leave the conversation without looking like a unicorn.

Amiable conversation, but not terribly productive

Asker: “So, how has that been working out?”

Me: “Well, it’s a work-in-progress. I’m still figuring it out, but it’s really no different than any other business or job.”

Less amiable, worth getting out of as quickly as possible

Asker: “So, is that all you do? Can you really make money?”

Me: “Well, I’m a consultant, too.”

Asker: “Ah, gotcha.” People usually don’t care what kind of consultant. But now I’m not a unicorn and can move on with my life.

Amiable, though misguided, but has potential

Asker: “So what were you doing before?”

Me: “I was working in lean manufacturing. I led projects improving efficiency and reducing waste in business operations.”

Asker: “Wow, that’s really different. It’s pretty rare/weird for someone to be creative and logical, right? To be both left and right brained? I mean, it’s cool if you can be both.”

Me (being cheeky): “Well, not really. I was born with two halves of my brain for a reason. Why would I have both if I were only supposed to use one side?”

Asker: “I guess that’s a good point.” It’s obvious that the person isn’t convinced, and here’s where it’d be really easy to let the idealist in me wither and die.

Luckily, I’m not so easy. ;)

And for every well-meaning person who doesn’t know how to react to an artist, this is the burning question that I have to ask.

How is it more logical for me to tell you…

“I make my living telling other people what to do.”

…than to tell you, “I make stuff. And then I sell it.”

Why is that so weird? How is that illogical?

More importantly, how is that not the most straightforward thing I could say in response to, “What do you do?”

How is it any different than any other job you would choose to do or pursue? Chances are, your job has something to do with making stuff or selling it or both. The only difference is layers.

I make my own stuff. I sell my own stuff.

That’s not to say what I do is easy. It’s not. It’s hard. It’s uncertain, and not even just when I’m busy. When you work for a company, you still make a bi-weekly paycheck on the slow days, whether or not you’re productive. On the days when I don’t make a sale or have a client, I’m worth $0 to society. I haven’t made it yet. I will, but I also have to be willing to show up everyday and work without a guarantee. That’s not any different than working for a company that could lay you off or fire you, but back to the layers. I have none, so reality is right in front of me.

That’s worth saying again. Reality is right in front of me. Mind you, I make up imaginary beings for a living. Even so, reality is right in front of every artist. Every maker.

It takes a lot of responsibility, to own up to and believe in your actions, to the marks you make and will on people.

So what does that tell us about the stigma, that making something with your own hands is unrealistic, irresponsible, or impractical?

What does that tell us about our culture, if we’ve branded art as something not all of us are meant to have or understand?

What does that tell us about the resulting, sick joke our economy and job culture have played on us, about what’s realistic and what’s not?

What does that tell us about how our confidence has been manipulated, to rely on things that can’t be shaped with our own hands? To not recognize these hands in all their capacity and capability, to touch and connect with other people?

What does it say about us, that we expect people who do make things with their own hands to fail and to starve?

mis_manos

A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, "And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance."
A mural I saw in Valparaíso, Chile. It reads, “And my hands are the only thing I have, they are my love and my sustenance.”

“But art isn’t necessary for survival!!!” Many will say, and you may say it, too.

Canned food wasn’t necessary until we invented it. Smart phones, credit cards, books, envelopes, cars, jewelry….none of these ever had to do with need. A college education isn’t about need, or even want for many people, as much as it is about obligation. Yet the average American student carries $29,000 in debt for that obligation, and this is what many people have collectively agreed is the responsible way to live. And what we collectively agree to believe in, rational or not, beneficial or not, becomes the truth.

Maybe that’s the part we fear the most, that what we do…nobody needs. As long as we don’t talk about it, maybe we can keep pretending and nobody will get hurt.

Is what I do necessary? Nope. It isn’t a question of need to do or even always want to do, and the work guarantees no rewards.

But that doesn’t stop me from knowing why I do it.

I’m willing to do really great work for no promise of success. Creative work. Beautiful work. Work that can light up people’s hearts as easily as it can make them cry. Work that moves people. Work that both exposes human nature and makes it safe to show our scars. Work that can also be play. Work that reminds us why we’re here, why we bother, and why we fall in love in the wake of heartbreak.

Why? Because this is the “impractical” part. I’m doing it for love, which has no guarantee. Getting paid is just a means to an end, and because I know that what I’ve made is worth something.

There’s something else that’s weird to me, though.

That my way is harder, when the model is so much simpler, so much leaner, than the vast majority of jobs and businesses we’re trying to create and protect. And that many of the people who hate their jobs want my job to be the harder one, to be the impossible, impractical one. That mindset is hurting all of us, in the short and long run.

I make stuff. I sell it.

It doesn’t get more “left-brained” than that.

So here’s the big secret.

I’m not living my “childhood dream.” I’m just doing what I innately understood, as a kid, to be common sense, before others convinced me otherwise. I’m doing something with my hands, with what I have. I’m making something to share what’s inside me with other people, which is as old as human existence and expression.

Here’s something else. I really don’t care if you “get” art or not. I just don’t agree that it’s so damn weird or out of line. And I’m sad about how many things it tells us, that the outliers in our culture are the ones who tap the deepest into their own souls.

To call this the road to starvation doesn’t just hurt and limit artists. It cripples anyone in any job who says, “I’m not an artist.” It cripples culture. It destroys connection. It kills change.

If you believe the myth that artists must starve, then of course you would never want to be an artist. Of course you don’t appreciate or value art, or see the artistry in what you do. And I don’t blame you.

But if you can’t see artistry, then you won’t value creativity. You will fear creators rather than strive to be one. You won’t believe you can add true beauty to this world, through whatever your skillset might be. You won’t see magic in the things that you do, or that other people do. You won’t understand value. You won’t understand your own voice. You’ll get played by other people and other companies and never know how to break the cycle. You might think you want security, when really you want security in your position, more so than security that comes from within yourself. If you have a little more confidence than that, then you might want status. You might want power. But you don’t actually want to make anything better, or if you do, you don’t truly believe that you can. And that sucks.

For that, as unapologetically honest as I can be, I am truly, deeply sorry.

But I only have to be sorry for as long as you, as any of us, continues to agree, that this current way must always be the only way.

I invite you to see the ordinariness in what I do, as a way to see how simple the special things we’re all after could really be.

I challenge you to let go of needing validation from the things that hold you back.

 

"The Light Within Us We Do Not Use," 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao
“The Light Within Us We Do Not Use,” 20 x 30 in drawing, by Jenie Gao, from the series, Self Awareness.