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I am a cognitive anthropologist. For a number of years, I’ve been studying famous performing artists and fine artists, in order to reveal the cognitive proclivities and bents of mind they embody. This, in order to posit their artful way of being, as a model for how we can call be more successful in dealing creatively in today’s complex world.
This perspective represents an effort to uncover the internal dialogue and cognitive processes of creative artists that produce songs, music, films, novels, theater, dance, paintings, sculpture and other forms of art that are taken up in popular culture, that drive commerce. Implicitly, is it a call for business — as typically practiced — to go beyonda focus on its number of “likes” and “big data” points, to seek an understanding of human nature and the nature of mind, so that a corporation’s Return On Investment (ROI) can increase as an index of its contribution to the enhancement of human vitality.
Corporate-Speak versus Human-Speak
If it is to evoke an increase in human vitality, business cannot all be numbers and logic. Big Data and Artificial Intelligence might be appropriate when making some decisions like, say, product distribution, or by winning such rule-governed games like chess or Go. However, creativity and imagination cannot be reduced to ones and zeros, despite how comforting the illusion of certainty that data provides.
Corporate language – numeric, objective, linear, and wholly logical — isn’t precise enough to describe the everyday experiences that people have, on the ground, real-time and moment-to-moment. While business is always trying to remove the “I,”that is exactly what it needs capture, in order to apprehend and comprehend people talking, working, playing, enjoying small pleasures, suffering pain and aching hearts, creating families and growing older – all the while doing their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy them. Such a lexicon, removed as it is, from the natural, alive mind, misses what people want more of – more life, more love, more hope, more truth, and more power and more soul. That is the territory that human presence inhabits, even more than the world of consumer products.
Business lingo – particularly, marketing-speak — doesn’t let people express themselves in their own voice. Instead, it abstracts the audience — and itself— out of the body, out of direct experience and out of seeing the possibility of a wider future than is currently conceived. Across the landscape of economic skyscrapers the self is left outside many an office door. This is all in the service of erecting a cover-story that seems to increase predictability and minimize vulnerability. Business is in the business of avoiding the fact that life, at best, is a reverie between sorrow and splendor. Business worships at the alter of “Big Data,” and as a consequence, true aspects of people’s identity and longing are asunder.
The artful, audacious thinker knows better. He or she knows, that by following the lure of the self, stories and images can be created that people can insinuate their own stories into. The result: people feeling better understood, less alone and more vital.
Artful Audacity and The World of TOO
Why focus on this now? Because the context of the world we live in today – the context of TOO – too fast, too competitive, too complex — requires all of us to be more creative, imaginative and artful. We have to makethe future, not just adapt to future.
The World of TOO requires artful thinking, artful leadership, and this demands an artful audacity.
Audacity here is not meant to signify arrogance, but rather to suggest a certain courage, self-respect and compassion for others in order to go beyond past routines to glimpse what John Updike called “the gallant, battered ongoingness of everyday life.” Case histories, best practices and off-the-shelf methods are things of the past and today we are left only with the fast-changing future. To meet this world head-on we can’t stand pat on old ways or on simplistic insinuations of digital.
Going Through The Chaos
An image of what I’m talking about with respect to artful audacity comes from Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of a Third Kind.” In this film there is a scene in which Richard Dryfuss, the central character, without actually knowing why, is building a clay model of a hill or a mound. Spielberg says of Dryfuss in that scene:“Something opens up his imagination to get to something that he thinks is going to provide some cathartic answer [to what he thinks was his sighting of a UFO].” He had to go through chaos to reach some kind of clarity. Dryfuss’ character was an artist trying to plumb the depths of his imagination.
It’s worthwhile to note here, too, Spielberg, talking about himself as a movie director, going through the chaos. He says: “Every time I start a new scene I’m nervous, but I’ll tell you it’s the greatest feeling in the world. The more I’m feeling confident and secure, the less I’m going to put out. The more I feel, oh-oh, this is going to be a major problem in getting the story told, I’m going to work overtime to meet the challenge. So I hate the feeling of being nervous, but I need to feel in this moment I’m really not sure what I’m doing, and when that verges on panic I get great ideas.”
Artful Audacityis having the wherewithal to go through that state of chaos with an open mind, instead of thinking, “I know exactly what I’m doing, I’ve done this before, I got this covered.”
Philip Roth, the American novelist and winner of many literary awards, concurs. He talks about a concept he calls “Anti-Fluency.” He says, “Sometimes in the beginning [of writing a novel], uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening; fluency can actually be my signal to stop. In contrast, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on and create something that’s truly alive.”
While in the dark, Roth points out that it is usual for paradoxical feelings to arise: groaning and exhilaration; frustration and freedom; uncertainty and inspiration; emptiness and abundance; muddling through and blazing forth.
Dealing with those paradoxical feelings and finding your way through to the other side iscreativity, isthe artful process, andisan expression of artful audacity.
Wynton Marsalis reflects on this when he speaks of Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpeter. Marsalis says, “Miles was the most creative jazz musician, but at the same time, Miles always tapped into an aspect of the loneliness of the human condition, our solitariness. Miles captured the fact that we are all vulnerableANDyet we all swing.” Yes, human beings often are self-contradictory. As Walt Whitman poetically states, each person is a “multitude.”
Marsalis goes on to say, “Jazz happened the way all profound things happen – a thing and the opposite of that thing are mashed together.”
Let Bruce Springsteen have the final word here on paradox: He says, “You have to be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your head and your heart at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong.”
The only risk is not taking a risk.
Artful audacity entails doing what Spielberg and Roth do: Persist through the chaos by seeing it as opportunity, not an obstacle. If you’re working off an authentic impulse — something that comes from deep within — your mind will help you of its own accord.
That authentic impulse represents self-understanding. As Pharrell Williams teaches in his Master Class to Maggie Rodgers: “Go on a quest for who you are and express that in everything you do. Seek, be frank, be singular.” Artful audacity implies creating a new category that is YOU – you as a person, you as a self, merging you with the job you do.
Artful Leadership is not a list of attributes, decomposed. For example, David Grohl, lead of The Foo Fighters, talks about Ringo Star this way: “Define the best drummer in the world,” Grohl asks and then answers his own question. “Is it the one who is the most technically proficient or is it someone that sits in the song with their own feel? Ringo was the King of Feel.”
Leadership is a unified, non-decomposable transformation of knowledge as it passes through the sieve of self, which propels an authentic impulse toward one’s imagination. As a result, like ink in water, the “SELF” bleeds into what you do. That gives rise to artful thinking and artful audacity.
Business can and should view artists as a resource. Business can take inspiration from the bent of mind of artists, and use that as a model to artfully approach the complex world we live in today.
We can be Artists, All.
January 10, 2019 at 03:35PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs