Conceptualizing the corporation man as an artist (and vice versa)


The other day I had the great pleasure of sitting with a famous painter from Sicily known as Sebastian (his business card just says Sebastian Painter). He speaks in very broken English and understanding him requires having to pay close attention. But you don’t have to see his absolutely stunning work to get a sense of being in the company of an individual who emanates a kind of greatness — albeit in a very mild-mannered and quiet way. Despite smoking cigarette after cigarette and drinking espresso after espresso, he is the picture of placidity. In fact, viewing the photo I snapped of him, I could almost see a sweet little boy hiding beneath the thatch of snowy white hair.

But, as it turns out, there’s a distinct reason for his aura of serenity – and oddly enough, it’s one that’s work related. I realized this when I asked him straight out how he defined art. Welling up and putting his hands around his heart, he replied, “When passion and your soul take action, it is the soul that is coming through.” He explained that when he paints, he doesn’t know what time it is, but rather is living in the moment and feels totally at peace.

Now, the reason I wanted to meet with him is that about a year ago he inspired me to take up painting. And although I don’t mean to suggest that my work is in any way comparable to his, I find that when I do take the time to paint, I am absolutely present in the moment as well — and feel like I am in a place that is perfectly tranquil for that short period of time in a normally crazy business life.

One of Sebastian's Paintings

One of Sebastian’s Paintings

 That’s why I have been really thinking about what we can learn from someone like Sebastian in regard to working in the corporate environment. How many times do we get to be passionate and follow the dictates of our souls in the course of our normal workday? Would the world be a better place if we could do it more often?

I have been really frustrated lately with the lack of significant accomplishment and forward movement on the part of two industries in which I have been very active — organic food and sustainability. Both are fields that I believe call for both passion and soulfulness in order to achieve momentum. That’s why at the Sustainable Brands Conference last month I was so excited by the leadership panel representing “female energy.” In the same way, I am now thinking about how the “energy of an artist,” male or female, might change the dynamic of our fields of endeavor.

So I’d like to add one more thing to what Sebastian said about the passion and the soul taking action, and that is letting go of your fear of failure. This, I believe, is the sort of fear that has stopped many great organic and sustainability initiatives in their tracks. Now it’s true that painting is a private pursuit, so if you’re concerned that what you’re creating will turn out to be a dud (as I often am), that’s not something anyone else need be aware of.  But what if you could approach your business initiatives in a totally creative manner, not only by infusing them with passion and soul, but without being afraid to fail?  What might you do differently? What might you tell or advise your boss? How would you direct your team?

If you try thinking of yourself as an artist in whatever type of business you’re in, and your accomplishments as your canvas, you’ll discover a world of possibilities you might never even have considered.

In some enterprises, of course, this is much easier to conceptualize. The organic farmer, for example, is already a kind of artist, in that he has to understand his medium — the soil. He has to get his hands dirty and constantly make creative decisions. Reflecting on many of my friends in organic agriculture, they remind me quite a bit of Sebastian, always full of passion and putting their heart and soul into their work.

Most of the entrepreneurs I’ve known are also artists, even if they’re not aware of it. In fact, some of them are more like the proverbial starving artist – with little or no cash, no earnings and running their enterprise on nothing but passion, soul and a large measure of fearlessness.

Big corporations, by contrast, usually have quarterly earnings and plenty of cash to spend, but little passion or soul — and employees who are fearful of rocking the boat or making mistakes (if they’re not afraid to tell the truth as well). So I’m well aware that the typical large corporate structure was never originally designed to accommodate fearlessness or passion or soulfulness. But that‘s all changing, as some of today’s high-tech enterprises have demonstrated. Even more established corporate cultures can be affected by acquiring or incorporating smaller companies with more dynamic perspectives. Given the right environment, I am convinced that the imagination and resourcefulness of such maverick divisions can start to take route throughout the entire enterprise. (In time, it might even result in an actual artist being added to the board of directors.)

I do believe such transformation can change the way corporations operate – in fact, I believe they eventually will, because it is the only way those companies will be able to successfully compete in a society that is rapidly becoming less conventional and more free-spirited. The more passionate people become about their pursuits, the more they will be drawn to those enterprises that reflect their passions. And in that way, even the most staid corporations will ultimately be forced into organic orbits, in which creativity gradually puts conformity out of the picture entirely.

As for being afraid of failure, do we even know what that is? An artist may regard his work as having failed, only to see it considered a treasure by others – as was proven by Vincent Van Gogh, the artist who sold only one painting in his entire career.

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