A team of corporate executives stares up at me. Behind the polish and power, I see the look of fear.
I have witnessed this face of panic in many painting classes, but it’s especially palpable in this group. I tell them again, kindly but firmly, to pick up their paintbrushes and begin painting the blank canvases. Hesitantly, they obey. They insist that I explain exactly how to recreate the example painting — a colorful tree with flowers. It’s a simple painting, designed to be finished in several hours, just for fun. Yet it seems to terrify them.
These men and women make important business decisions every day. If I asked them to negotiate a multimillion-dollar deal, they wouldn’t blink. Paint a tree? They balk. Only after the wine begins to kick in does the class relax. Even then, the group walks away with seemingly identical trees. One woman plans to hide her painting under a bed because her tree doesn’t look exactly like the model. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I have heard that. I teach groups like this all the time.
They don’t understand that the final product isn’t the point. It’s about challenging yourself to depart from your comfort zone to create something.
A week earlier, I had taught the same painting to members of a Girl Scout troop, ages 9 to 11. I needed to race through my introduction, because they were so eager to start. Their eyes gazed longingly at their blank canvases, fingers twitched to grab brushes. Once they began, the girls asked me only for more paint colors. I saw wide trees, skinny trees, tall trees, short trees. None was the same, and not a single girl cared in the slightest.
When does this transition occur? At what point among e-mails, meetings, deadlines and long days do we forget the joy of creating?
These questions have been on my mind this fall, as I stopped teaching and began the MBA program at the University of Minnesota. During orientation, the school emphasized to its class of 2018 that business leaders must take risks and think for themselves. These are creative qualities as much as they are quantitative skills. An IBM poll found that 60 percent of CEOs reported creativity as the most important predictor of success in business. Why is it then, that as many of us chase our careers, we let our creative spirits waste away?
Creativity is like a muscle. It dystrophies the less you use it.
As I embark on this scholastic journey, I want to continue making time for the arts. The business school is fittingly adjacent to the West Bank Arts Quarter. Last Friday, I crossed the lawn and inadvertently wandered into the theater department’s fall preview day. The proximity of these academic disciplines is an opportunity we should seize. I challenge my classmates, and readers, to make the arts part of your life.
If you once enjoyed sketching, pick up a pencil. If you used to savor poetry, read a sonnet. Next time you walk by an art store, don’t just window shop — go in, discover what’s inside and take it home. Or go see a show, fold origami, write a short story. Make time for it. Just like exercise, the act of creating gets easier and feels natural the more it becomes a part of your routine.
Oh yeah, and the greatest thing?
You can do it for just you. I don’t even care if you hide it under your bed.
Laura M. Johnson is a full-time MBA candidate in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.