Career books often tell us that we should learn from successful leaders in business, the nonprofit sector or government. But in their new book, Becoming a Life Change Artist, Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan argue that we could all benefit from studying the processes used by visionary artists like Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci sound advice for anyone preparing for an encore career.
In order to do their work, artists need to excel at preparation, seeing, using context, embracing uncertainty, taking risks, collaborating and applying discipline traits that would serve anyone embarking on a creative pursuit or a life change. In a recent interview, Fred Mandell explained on how to build the core skills necessary to navigate any life change.
Q: How did you get the idea for this book?
A: The idea came to me while I was pouring molten bronze into a mold for a sculpture. It suddenly struck me that the challenges artists face are parallel to the challenges I faced while building a business.
I stepped back and realized that I’d had three major careers first as an academic, then as a corporate executive and now with my artwork. Things began to click all over again. I saw that these core creative skills are really leadership skills, and they are really life change skills. And they can be applied or drawn upon anytime you lead an organization or navigate a life change.
Q: Let’s talk about what happens in the shower. I’ve always been fascinated by how I can solve problems when I leave my work for a while to take a walk, cook a meal or especially when I take a shower. What’s going on here, and is there something that occurs when you stand underwater?
A: What all these things have in common is they engage you in activity that helps you break with prior patterns of thought. You’re a knowledge worker. And for the most part knowledge workers are engaged in analytical logical thinking, whether having a conversation or writing, and putting structure around things that you might lose.
But when you do something that breaks with the prior pattern of thought, whether it’s showering, washing dishes or taking a walk in nature, intuition and imagination take advantage of that break, seep into your mind and bring you fresh insight. It’s not the water. It’s the activity of getting outside of your own mind.
Q: In the book you write that all children have artistic instincts, explaining that 5- or 6-year-olds don’t worry that their colors or proportions are off. So, if we all start out as little artists, why is it that only a small number of adults feel truly creative in their work?
A: There are a few reasons for that. Our educational system promotes the notion that there are “right” and “wrong” answers. We become reluctant to be spontaneous and explore the possibilities that come out when you just blurt out what comes to mind in response to something.
Taking risks is at the core of creativity, so if you become reluctant to take risks, such as looking foolish or coming up with the “wrong” answer, then you will act less spontaneously and your creativity will suffer. Gordon MacKensie, who writes about creativity in corporations, tells a great story about an experiment he did. He went into a first grade class and asked how many artists were present and almost everyone raised their hands. In the second grade, it went down to half. And by the third grade it was down to about 10 percent.
Relatively early on, the educational experience dampens spontaneity. That’s one thing. Another thing is that we tend to internalize judgments made by other people. Not all of us are natural-born artists. And we anticipate a negative judgment and therefore don’t step into the risk. So it’s personal experience plus our educational system.
Q: By the end of your book, I started to wonder if creativity is as much practice as inherent talent. You seem to be arguing we can all be change artists. Can we also all be other kinds of artists (e.g., writers, painters, sculptors) if we practice enough?
A: Yes, I really think so. I take myself as a primary example. If you looked at my artwork today, you’d say I do some promising work and have some talent. If you had known me 10 years ago and seen what I’d done, you’d say no way could this guy do what he does today. All I could do back then was stick figure drawing. I almost failed seventh grade shop because I couldn’t weld things together or do a prototype of anything.
If you have the right instruction and are willing to put in an effort, you can go way beyond what your own expectations are for your creativity.
Q: What are your hopes for this book and the process you’d like people to start using as they go through life changes?
A: I’d like to see the lines between art and life intentionally brought more closely together. I’d like people to embrace the notion that life is a fundamentally creative process, an art form. If that is true, then the sources we can go to, in order to gain insight and develop our creative skills, are in fact the great artists.I happened to focus on the great visual artists, but really all of the arts can provide deep lessons about navigating change in life and in business. We don’t run a business, we create it. We don’t have a life, we create one. Whenever we are engaged in any activity with the opportunity to grow, we have the opportunity to bring a creative perspective and open up new possibilities for ourselves.