5 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Art Students

My younger son is a high school senior this year and I find myself in awe of his ability to manage an wildly complex and demanding existence. First semester of senior year is an overwhelming time – college visits and applications to schedule and manage, final rounds of SATs and ACTs to prepare for, a full load of honors and AP classes to cope with, and an incredibly active social life to conduct. On top of all of that, he is a musician and a serious visual artist.

His output of artwork, in particular is especially impressive and I have learned a great deal from him and from his fellow art students about productivity, work habits, and skill sets and I have come to understand that much of the training he is receiving is also applicable to entrepreneurs. A college visit this weekend to the Rhode Island School of Design helped to gel some of these ideas. We were fortunate to visit studios and classrooms and have the opportunity to speak with students and faculty at the school and it was inspirational for both my son and I, perhaps in different ways. He was most impressed the creative atmosphere, the work being produced by the students we met, and the facilities and resources available, while I was stirred by the creative atmosphere, the work being produced, the facilities and resources. The difference? He was looking at it through the lens of a young artist, while my perception was that of an entrepreneur. The surprise to me is just how thin was the line between our two perspectives and how much we each stood to learn from the experience – him learning lessons about the creative process and me about what entrepreneurs can learn from artists.

1. Observe. A RISD professor spoke about the importance to artists of developing their ability to observe the world around them – everything from behavior to nature. The professor explained that as infants we “watch” the world around us and over time, the simple act of watching becomes the ability to “observe.” The distinction is important, as merely watching is a passive learning experience, while the skill of observation is an ability artists must consciously develop to inform and illuminate their ideas and their work. As I listened it occurred to me that this is equally important in business; managers need to develop the ability to carefully observe the conditions they are presented with – everything from customer behavior, to market conditions, to economic activity, and to what the competition is up to. The photo above is of the Nature Lab at RISD, an astonishing and rich resource where students develop their ability to observe, drawing on the natural world as inspiration; items and artifacts surround them and they are given specific exercises to assist in their training, such as these students modeling skulls from clay. The lesson for them is that they should not simply watch, but rather learn to observe. 

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2. Experiment. That same professor went on to discuss the importance of experimentation in the creative process. He described again how infants explore the world around them through the process of “testing.” Every object goes straight to the mouth, or is picked up, turned over, smelled, touched, and stared at. Artists, he went on to say, should adapt the process of simply testing to a a new level – experimentation. By it’s nature experimentation is a disciplined approach to a process. It involves establishing a thesis and then designing a process to test and, ultimately, prove that thesis through trial, error, observation, and iteration. The lean approach to business requires a similar process of experimentation, observation, and iteration. We write often about the critical importance of testing ideas in the market and the similarity was, to me, striking.

3. Find solutions. Problem solving skills are critical to both the artist and the entrepreneur. At their core, both disciplines require an approach that identifies a problem and articulates a solution. In art, the problem may be as simple (at least on its surface) as how to visually represent an idea; in the startup domain, we also need to identify a problem or pain-point, determine whether there is a large enough group of customers who experience that particular pain, and then pose a solution that provide an answer, or ease the pain for that group.

4. Collaborate. The widespread and common image of the artist is of a solitary figure, laboring in their garret, focused on their work, inured to the activity of world around them. What this ignores is the reality that artists, as often as not, must develop collaborative ability and perfect the ability to work with others. Think of an orchestra or chorus in perfect unity, a film crew laboring towards the final product, or even a team of architects collaborating on a project. Entrepreneurs, too, must develop the ability to work in teams, to cooperate with others, and to be effective in a group context in much the same way.

5. Create. At the end of the day, entrepreneurs, like artists of all stripes, work to create something where before there was nothing. A new business or a new product, is not so different from a new painting, sculpture, or composition. We build something from scratch using the resources available, our ability to observe, our willingness to experiment, and the problem-solving abilities we develop along the way. Here’s to the creative process, no matter the end product – great artists and great entrepreneurs should look to one another every day for inspiration, ideas, and rich awareness of the world around.

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