Don’t Be a Sample Size of One

Don’t Be a Sample Size of One


I have an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). The more I read about innovation and business practices, the more I believe my degree is more valuable than an MBA to deal with the rapid- fire climate of change facing all industries.

Much is being written about leading for change and there are some great examples out there about big hitters – impact makers. I recently took a class with IDEO and they are bringing everyday people into every design decision they make because serving everyday people is at the core of their process, their product, and their profit. It gave me some new tools to capture the way people solved everyday problems; I paid attention to new things.

Steve Jobs gave his team a famous challenge – how can you put 1,000 songs in your pocket? What a great prompt to think outside the box. Google’s 20% rule, where you get to take some concentrated time to come up with innovative solutions is right on target – you can’t let your mind make interesting new connections when the email is pinging and the phone is ringing and the updates are prompting you to pay attention.

R&D, accepting ambiguity, rapid prototyping – I learned all those things in art school. I had to come up with my own problems to solve (what was my idea – my question, my statement, my concern and what were the right tools to convey that idea.) I had to believe it was relevant (to me and to the larger world). We had critiques where all the work was discussed, dissected and sometimes dismembered. Art is by its nature ambiguous and abstract. I keep sketchbooks and journals and have rough drafts and half-finished everything in my studio – the prototype is the process.

Art school taught me to think flexibly. Art is the story of humanity over time. Its narrative arc covers politics and power, want and need, transcendence through beauty, passion and purpose. Art is about craft – the steps necessary to create something that will last, that will be looked at or experienced. Art is about what it means to be human – how to celebrate that or survive it. Art is about discovery – considering new ways to tell old tales, finding my voice among many, hearing it (or seeing it) through other’s eyes and learning about myself through that process.

I do think there’s something sacred about art that doesn’t transfer to product, process, or profit. I also think there is massive grey area where creativity, commerce, innovation, and leadership mingle in a messy mass of brilliance. Creative thinking is at the core of invention – we see those leaps of thinking in art (the shift from the renaissance to the more abstract and less defined work of the color field painters or the music of John Cage.) Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Roger Bannister (who ran the first mile under four minutes), and Marie Curie all saw something no one else saw and acted on that insight to change the world.

Art school taught me to look more closely and to act on that reflection. It required me to understand the history out of which each movement grew, and it expected me to add to that history. If I got an MBA, it might teach me about the triple bottom line, but I don’t think it would teach me the compassion for humanity that art history has. I don’t think it would require me to look at things closely or listen attentively so that when I’m ready to add my voice, I do it in a way that prompts collaboration.

The businesses that survive and the leaders that are able to wrangle the troops through change are like the best works of art, they are thoughtful, confident enough to show their humanity, and open to interpretation. It takes a village and the village voice needs to be a mixed bag. A good leader is like a good editor and we all need a good editor.

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