Every day, I run into people who seem emotionally and intellectually stunted. The amount of money in their bank accounts, the kinds of cars they drive, the square footage of their house or condo or sailboat, the job title printed on their business cards, none of that matters. They all have something in common: they seem limited in their ability to empathize with others. Worse, they even have trouble empathizing with themselves, which is far more problematic. Most seem at times unable to enjoy their lives in those moments when they aren’t making news or signing huge clients, or somehow living the “being successful” narrative they’ve pinned a whole lot of their self worth on. There’s a faint echo of bitterness there that you can hear when they talk about others. There is always also a deliberate – if regretful – detachment from the world that makes me a little sad to be around them. Far more obvious though is the undercurrent of fear that casts its shadow on almost everything they say and do.
They take that with them everywhere they go. Their kitchen, their blog, their job, their vacations, their workouts, their relationships… It isn’t the sort of thing they can tuck away. I’ve worked with many of them. I’ve worked for some of them. It’s always a little depressing. You see all the things that they are, all the things that they could be, and you want to focus on all that potential, but the reality is that you’re stuck in a version of the world in which that potential will probably never be released, and that’s a damn shame.
I know what they’re missing. I know what the missing piece is. It’s art. I mean, it’s more complicated than that, sure. But toss an art bomb into their trench, and you’ll see their lives (and the lives of the people around them) completely transformed.
In business, in love, in life, art matters. It really does. Especially our own. And I’m not talking about putting colors on a square of canvas or blowing into a trombone. I’m talking about opening doors and letting shit out that we wish we had the balls to share with our loved ones, with peers, with complete strangers. I am talking about giving form to the abstract currents of our hearts. Fear, love, anger, lust… You can’t let it all sit there, locked up for fear that people will reject you if you give them a glimpse. Hiding your vulnerabilities isn’t strength. It’s just hiding. Courage is letting it all out. It’s being more than the “personal brand” you’ve built to hide behind. Art isn’t pretty things on a wall. It isn’t the product of a hobbyist. It isn’t an abstract outlet for socially awkward intellectuals and “artsy types.” It’s is a vehicle for exploration and discovery, which is to say that it’s a vehicle for courage. Art provides human beings with the medium, discipline and language to open those secret doors and windows, to air out their dreams, their demons, their fears, their desires, all of it, and see how far their minds can go when they aren’t weighed down by fear and pain and bullshit.
Courage isn’t just picking up a rifle and going to war, by the way. It isn’t just standing up to a bully or doing the right thing when no one else will. Courage is also picking up a paint brush or a guitar or a lump of clay. It’s putting words on page after page for 6 straight months. It’s allowing yourself to be overcome with emotion while watching a movie and not giving a shit that the person sitting next to you sees you crying. It’s dancing or singing in front of a crowd. It’s letting the pencil, the scalpel, the chisel, the baseball bat and the steering wheel go where they want to, without fear. It’s trusting your skills, your instincts. It’s letting go of all of your baggage and your life’s hangups and just doing something pure and 100% in the moment. It doesn’t matter if that’s leading a team, crafting ad copy, designing a website, revamping a customer service program, flying a combat mission, assembling a pair of sunglasses, editing a movie or pulling a country out of a financial ditch. Art is the ingredient X behind every discovery, every evolutionary leap, every victory. Without a little art in your science, you’re really just playing at following best practices. You’re just going through the motions, playing it safe, coloring inside the lines.
By the way, there’s more to art than stuff like this:
This is art too:
Look at children. They’re natural artists. You know why? Because they don’t give a shit how their drawing and singing and banging on piano keys makes them look. They’re not saddled with social anxiety yet. They aren’t afraid of being rejected. Letting art into your life teaches you to hold on to that fearlessness.
Let me tell you something I’ve learned in the last few decades, both in the military and the private sector: anything that helps you hold on to who you are, anything that helps you be who you are, and anything that helps you walk through your day with a little more courage, self assurance and self-knowledge will make you not only a more complete person but a better leader as well. Period. You want to know what our kids need more of? Art. Every time I hear of an art program being cut somewhere, I cringe because I know where it leads. Every time I hear someone scoff about art, belittle it, treat it as a waste of time, I can’t help but shake my head at the short-shortsightedness of that opinion. We don’t need more math. Trust me. What we need more of is art.
Art is at the heart of every civilization, of every major technological, scientific, political and philosophical breakthrough. There can be no civilization without art because there can be no civilization without culture. Humans physically cannot function without it. From cave paintings to playing a Will-i-am song on Mars, art is at the core of everything that moves us beyond hunting for food, protecting our territory and breeding. Art is the force inside and the current between all of us that unlocks and feeds our humanity. A nation without art will break apart and die as surely as a company or brand without art will never invent anything worth remembering.
No matter what our choice of profession is – CEO, auto mechanic, surgeon, soldier, EMT, assembly line worker, politician, restaurant manager, samurai, etc. – we’re all artists. All of us. You leave the art bottled up inside you, and your career will never reach its full potential. In life and love outside of work, you’ll always wonder why you feel stalled, why you feel alone, why you can’t connect with people the way you wish you could. You’ll always be a fraction of who you should be, of who you would like to be. But if you can find a way to let it out, to give it form, to embrace it, to let it permeate into every aspect of your life – professional and otherwise, – you will grow into a much happier, more fulfilled person. I don’t think that’s true. I know that’s true. I see it every single day.
One last thing to chew on, because in the end, it all begins and ends with you. Everything else in your life radiates outward from what goes on in your head: Your career, your friendships, your health, your sense of self-worth, your happiness, your achievements, how you gauge success… everything. That last thing, it’s this: life without art is like sunshine without warmth.
Or as my old friend Kenn Sparks always likes to say, “Most people die with the music still in them.” – Josef Haydn.
He has a point.
Let it out. Break free. Grow into who you were supposed to be. Change the world. Show others the way. (Or keep being moderately happy. Your choice.)
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Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your Organization was written specifically to teach managers and executives how to build and manage social media friendly business programs and incorporate social technologies and networks into everyday business operations. The book is divided into four parts: social media program strategy & development, social media program operationalization, social media program management, and best practices in measurement and reporting. If your boss doesn’t yet have a copy, time to fix that. If everyone on your team doesn’t yet have their own copy, fix that too. It makes for a great desk reference.
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