Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Etienne Toussaint. Etienne lives in Washington D.C. He writes frequently about social innovation, creativity and finding the balance between professional development and personal growth. You can connect with him on Twitter or on his blog.
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It was his eyes that mesmerized me. In them, I discovered a rage that burned through my skin and stifled my breath with an intensity you would not expect from such monsters.
But it was a rage I secretly craved.
While friends ran wildly outside under the summer sun, trumpeting their screams into an orchestra of sounds cascading out of apartment windows and over roaring subway trains galloping along squeaky tracks, I sat at the kitchen table studying Bruce Banner.
He was a man I would never meet, but hoped to at least understand.
I wanted to decode the secret behind his superhuman strength. The source of his great rage and the faith that kept him alive, despite his grotesque appearance.
He is different, but does he want to change the world like I do? Is he angry at the reflection he finds in the mirror, or rather at the callousness reflected through the eyes of peers, piercing his soul like a .223 Remington diving into vermin? Even during his weakest moments, crippled by a world that labels him the reincarnation of Shelley’s Frankenstein, he never stops trying to be a better man.
I believed his strength was a gift, even if others didn’t see it that way.
People called him the hulk, but in his eyes I saw hope. I would sit for hours at the kitchen table on Saturday afternoons, staring at a sheet of starch white paper with a pencil in hand as granny cooked in the distance. And in my solitude, I let my mind roam. My imagination bled onto the page in curved lines and shaded angles like water flowing out of a reluctant hydrant on a sweltering summer day, awakened by the inspiring sound of happiness.
What makes this hulk so incredible, I thought.
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As a child, I drew pictures of the people that existed in my imaginary world for hours at a time. I loved art. Colorful memories of my father, assembling model cars or carefully sketching action figures at the wooden table on our back porch, still tug at my spirit. On snowy mornings when school was closed, my younger brother and I would sit far too close to the TV, trading sketches while attempting to reproduce Mark Kistler’s characters on the Imagination Station on PBS.
I do not think I cared much about crafting the perfect sketch.
My mother tells me that she stored some of my old drawings in a box somewhere, tucked away safely for who knows what. Maybe one day I will revisit those old friends and we will share a few laughs. I’m sure my two-dimensional interpretation of the hulk will resemble something closer to Slimer on steroids. No, something far simpler attracted me to the kitchen table.
I relished the magic of watching something emerge from nothing.
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I believe many people relegate art to a 30-minute class children savor each week in elementary school, or a calling a few adults are lucky enough to receive. We learn how to color inside of the lines by high school graduation and transition into following standard operating procedures by the time we are old enough to drink. We become obsessed with planning next steps, identifying safe routes and hoarding stuff we never use. But along the way, we often ignore the cathartic quality of art. Its ability to transform . Its power to heal. We forget the youthful ambition and innocent wisdom that fueled our love affair with construction paper and Crayola boxes.
Perhaps this is to be expected. After all, what does art have to do with career development?
In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, he suggests that young professionals strive to become ‘linchpins’ in the workplace. According to Godin, linchpins are the building blocks of great organizations. People that invent, lead, connect, make things happen and create order out of chaos. Simply, linchpins create art. But as Godin explains, art is more than a sketch birthed from the kitchen table. Art is an experience; the process of injecting creativity in everyday life to produce beautiful gifts that change people.
I believe everyone should strive to share art as often as possible. Here’s why.
1. You were born an artist. You were trained to become a worker.
Ask a classroom of six-year-old students, “How many artists are in the room?”
The majority will eagerly raise their hands, confident that the vibrant colors swarming in their imagination are all they need to create something special. Wait ten years and ask the same students the same question. Sadly, many will have changed their mind.
For many young professionals, prestige and security are heralded as indicators of value when judging career options, instead of factors like the ability to build valuable skills, balance diverse interests and reinforce core values. But as Paul Graham remarked in his 2006 article, How to Do What You Love:
“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”
By avoiding experiences that place us outside of our comfort zone, we foreclose opportunities to exercise creativity.
A well-defined career map may soothe the spirit in a way a blank sheet of paper never will. But the reassurance of a well-tested path or the comfort of a map will never fill the emptiness of memories entitled ‘what if’ and ‘if only’. A blank page, though risky, can help awaken new insights and unlock opportunities that impact the lives of those around us.
So start something new. Take a risk and improvise along the way. “If you hit a wrong note,” Miles Davis reminds us,
“it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”
2. We value and promote unique voices and remarkable insight. We replace cheap labor.
Labor is becoming increasingly commoditized. As Godin explains,
“The competitive advantage the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected and mature. Someone with passion and energy . . . flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion.”
Organizations value individuals who bring fresh ideas and discover new opportunities that have the potential to revolutionize industries. Because such ideas are not easy to come by, these individuals often become innovators in their field. Conversely, while workers who are skilled at accomplishing tasks are valued too, people who have mastered standard operating procedures are often easy to find. (There is an app for that.) Those individuals remain workers and are eventually replaced.
Ultimately, every person must decide how he or she will contribute to their community. As Steve Jobs stated in his 2005 Stanford commencement address:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
Who do you want to become?
By bringing the gift of your art to the workplace – your insight, initiative, connection, drive – you make it far less likely that your contributions will be viewed as a commodity.
3. Art never looks good on the bottom of a desk drawer. Share it.
Lost in a fantastical world on my kitchen table, I eventually discovered the beauty hidden beneath hulk’s rage. The power that pumps ferociously through his veins like rambunctious steam particles trapped inside a stubborn boiler, desperately searching for the nearest exit. I captured that world with my pencil and crayons on a blank of sheet of paper with all of the imagination I could muster.
But I never shared my art.
Perhaps my generation failed me. In 1982, nearly 66% of high school seniors in the U.S. reported taking art classes; by 2008, that number had fallen to below 50%. However, percentages tend to simplify the equation. More likely, I failed myself. Overcome with the fear of standing out and the risk of rejection, I locked my drawings away in a desk drawer where they starved to death. I did not realize that the beauty of art lies not in its ability to meet the expectation of the audience, but rather in its ability to help them see the world in a beautiful new way.
How many ideas have you locked in your desk drawer?
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I wish I was brave enough to share those drawings with my friends.
Instead, I ran outside and joined in the melee, gasping for breath in the humid air as if I had stepped into a rotting casket. Such was life in the crowded streets of the Bronx. We ran and ran until legs begged for mercy. Even when darkness drew near, the staleness of our routine was never enough to stop me.
I didn’t want to miss out on all the fun.
But days like this one, rain knocking on my bedroom window as if God himself is peering into my desk drawer, searching for the fragments of his inspiration, I wonder.
Maybe it’s not too late to unlock my creativity.