You Absolutely Must Be A Dancer, A Poet, A Painter…in Business
Art has the power to give us back our humanity where it’s needed most — at work.
“I understood businesses were run with meetings, but I am really shocked at how unproductive they can be! When you’re part of a dance ensemble in order to know much about whether something will work, you have to stop talking about it and try it out. Rehearsals represent an opportunity to physically test ideas — face-time means action.”
So began my lunch with Elyssa Dole at The Grove in San Francisco, one of the downtown cafes where venture capitalists meet hopeful start-up entrepreneurs. Amid the bustle and buzz in the air, Elyssa shared her first impressions of the internship she had started with a health start-up in the Bay Area. Then an MBA student at New York University Stern School of Business, Elyssa had previously been a professional dancer and choreographer. After attending the San Francisco Ballet School, studying in Russia, performing with various ensembles in New York, working as a choreographer, and creating multi-disciplinary performance projects for several years, she decided to apply all that she had learned as an artist to the world of business. Elyssa had met with me to seek career advice. As it turned out, I learned much more from her.
Elyssa was eager to challenge herself in a new industry and environment. She had resolved to find the perfect storm of technology, creativity, and human performance — and jump right in. As part of her MBA program, she had taken a Design Thinking class to learn how design principles can be used to tackle broader business and social issues. In the process, she learned about disruptive innovation, and the best practices of high-performing teams.
When Elyssa began her internship, she did so with gusto; she signed up for Tech Meet-Ups, began to learn coding, and attended numerous networking events and hackathons in the Bay Area world of “lean start-ups,” “rapid prototyping,” “fast failing,” and business model “pivots.” As she pivoted further away from her old life as an artist, she embraced the vicissitudes of her new one. Despite her genuine excitement and energy, I sensed a nervous anxiety. As a stranger in a strange business world, there was no denying that Elyssa was different. Despite her new aspirations and growing skill set, she was still an artistic spirit. I began to suspect that Elyssa might be homesick.
The sacred and the profane
I asked Elyssa if she had longings for parts of her old life, like the moments of elevation and transcendence that artists experience as they rehearse and perform. I was curious because dance, and in particular ballet, is often used to describe the ability to elevate basic genetic capabilities, like walking, into non-utilitarian expressions. What is so intriguing is that sensible, practical behavior doesn’t clearly offer up the idea that humanity possesses mind-blowing potential. Art can show us incontrovertibly that we are capable of so much more than we ever imagined — and that we can be more than we ever imagined. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience,” Teilhard de Chardin once wrote. The paradox of a human experience like dance is that it facilitates a state of transcendence through a rigorous reliance on very pragmatic and ordinary elements: discipline and process, which also happen to be the very virtues associated with scientific management and productivity.
The philosopher Emile Durkheim coined the term “homo duplex” to describe the “two levels of man: the profane and the sacred.” He believed that human beings use religion to facilitate self-transcendence to a “sacred sphere,” where our higher purpose eclipses our baser tendencies and self-interests — or the profane. The idea of “homo duplex” is also reflected in the arts; we can see it in the moments of elevation that lift us from the humdrum of every day life: the music of Leonard Cohen, the compositions of Arvo Pärt, the choreographies of William Forsythe, the Goldberg variations of Johann Sebastian Bach, the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, the Water Lily series by Claude Monet, and the final sequence in “Casablanca.” These moments evoke our higher self — if we let them — and they remind us that we are spiritual beings connected to something profound. They link us together in our humanity, and they reconnect us with what we know and feel to be sacred.
Elyssa claimed that during her time as a professional dancer she never thought about experiences of transcendence: “Dancing was my way of interfacing with the world, my identity.” Only in retrospect did she recognize them and see them as significant. Aficionados of dance view the art form as the quintessential reconciliation of body and soul, but there’s no denying that it is also mechanical and data-driven. Performers must follow the detailed instructions of their choreographers. In ballet, dancers have some room to impress themselves into the orchestrated moves they’ve received on instruction. There is space between the choreographed idea and the actual execution, which artists infuse with personal expression. This is why onstage, dancers are more than just performers — they are translators. They interpret an idea, a feeling, or a story, through human form, and we — the audience — reap the benefit of the totality of efforts.
When Design Thinking began infiltrating the mainstream business world around ten years ago, I was grateful for it. I saw that it gave business people a permission slip to think deeply, to create space for creativity, and to invest in ideas with a group of contributors. Finally, there was an interdisciplinary approach, with new templates and tools, to facilitate a brand new creative process for tackling business challenges. It allowed leaders to bring in “artistic” elements; it made room for innovative ways of thinking that traditional business had not offered before. But that’s not all. The business world embraced Design Thinking with enthusiasm because it provided a nice, safe swim lane. It wasn’t necessary to traverse the wild, wild creative seas that artists must navigate. But can we go even further? Can we blaze a new trail where Design Thinking left off?
I don’t envision a future in which artists with MBAs will serve as Creatives-in-Residence, adding an artistic temperament to business-as-usual. We don’t need that kind of bifurcation. What we need are business leaders who view business as an art. We need more MBAs — Masters of Business Arts — who can join the business community as astute design thinking practitioners and engineers of change. But they also have more to offer than that: they bring an atypical, eccentric worldview, and the ability to consistently reinvent themselves. A quote that hails from the Russian formalist art movement goes something like this: “It is our role as artists to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.”
Only if artists remain strangers can they see the familiar in a new light, and only if they remain outsiders can they point to other possible meanings. We need business leaders like that.
In the wake of a more human-centered economy, the business world needs people who are comfortable with asking questions rather than giving answers, are at ease with ambiguity and enigma, and see themselves as conduits for a greater purpose, rather than as “masters of the universe.” The designer John Maeda, partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and author of the book Redesigning Leadership, has studied the relationship between art and leadership and predicts that artists will emerge as these new leaders, citing RISD graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, the co-founders of Airbnb, as examples. He wrote: “People have the odd belief that creativity is a shortcut. That it’s easy. Creativity is an arduous process, one that forces you to be open and think imaginatively. That’s what many businesses want to do. And that’s what artists do.”
The capabilities of artists can help organizations be truly entrepreneurial, imagine disruptive innovations, and navigate ambiguous, complex environments in which data and analytical smarts alone are simply insufficient.
Makers of beauty and meaning
Of all the arts, poetry seems the most directly opposed to business. Poetry is both explicit and highly enigmatic. It is — as the American poet Stanley Kunitz put it — “the telling of the stories of souls.” The Greek root for poetry means “maker,” which makes poets more than just artists: they are the original seekers of meaning. As they write, they codify complex truths into rigid, rhetorical formats, but without necessarily shying away from ambiguity. A well-written poem examines the world closely, attempting to view it for the first time. Everything else — the emotional charge, the lyrical delight, even the intellectual pleasure — is secondary. The Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes said, “Nobody reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. They read the poem for the experience of travelling through it.”
Most business people think that the last thing they need is poetry, and most companies do not in fact have a poet of any kind seated at the boardroom table — much less any table. In fact, if a job applicant lists “poet” as a previous job title on a resume, she or he might not be considered seriously. But it is a grave mistake to dismiss poetry as escapism. If the business world were more accepting of poetry (and other art forms), and allowed it to play a role in business, we would not need to escape from the poetry-free reality of our everyday professional lives. We would find soulful delight in the office, as well as outside of it. I’ll go even further:
Keeping poetry out of the workplace means keeping our humanity out of the workplace.
In a remarkable blog post for the Harvard Business Review, John Coleman promoted “The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals.” In it he argued that poetry holds many lessons for business leaders: First, it “teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity” because “poets are our original systems thinkers.” Second, poetry can help leaders develop empathy, a critical skill for everyone wanting to understand the feelings and motivations of their stakeholders. Coleman refers to the program in Medical Humanities & Arts, which includes poetry in the curriculum as a way of enhancing empathy and compassion in doctors. He also references a study in Clare Morgan’s book What Poetry Brings to Business, stating that “poems caused readers to generate nearly twice as many alternative meanings as ‘stories,’ and poetry readers further developed greater ‘self-monitoring’ strategies that enhanced the efficacy of their thinking processes.”
We can’t talk about art without beauty. Art is, arguably, the most ambiguous human enterprise of all. Beauty, on the other hand, is not ambiguous at all. You get it when you see it because you feel it — you don’t use intellectual horsepower to deduce it. In the eye of the beholder, beauty is crystal clear. It is an artist’s job to take us through a journey where multiple things have multiple meanings, simply because we look at the world is many different ways. We do it for the final pay-off of emotional clarity, or for a moment of awe and beauty that transports us temporarily to another place. In this vein, Oxford business school professor Rafael Ramirez has suggested we build “attractive organizations” that make it their purpose to create beauty. He proposes an “aesthetical view of management.” Ramirez asks that organizations should emphasize creating positive visions for their employees and stakeholders in order to provide them more than just products and services. Organizations, he said, must serve as arbiters of meaning. Isn’t this what artists do?
A brand new world
Author Kathryn Schulz provides an interesting perspective on art in her book Being Wrong. She observes that “seeing the world as it is not” — the definition of “being wrong” — is actually the epitome of imagination, invention, and hope. Artists don’t see the world as is, but as it could be, and there’s a lot we can learn from that. Artists are the fools who peek below the surface, or dig beneath it to “speak” the truth they see. They have what business people might qualify as “insane” ideas that spur new thinking, and subsequently, real, concrete change. This is why artists are often the best innovators, producing work that is not yet measurable. In this spirit, Evan Spiegel, co-founder and CEO of Snapchat, expressed the very root of all innovation when he wrote:
“We’re going to change the world because this is not the one we want to live in.”
It’s time for business leaders to eschew the conventional belief that the more they measure the better they manage — let alone lead. Creative, disruptive ideas thrive in messy, artistic landscapes, where metrics are hard to come by, if at all. Art doesn’t serve, it asserts. It gives for no reason, and it does not yield an ROI. It is the anti-instrumentalist. It offers up an escape path for anybody who wants want to lead a successful and a beautiful life. “Life without art is intolerable,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote. Business that is merely mechanistic, scientific, numbers-driven — business without art — is, too.