Erik Wahl is a visual artist, author, and highly sought-after keynote speaker who inspires audiences to unleash their creativity and achieve superior performance. Author and award-winning podcaster David Burkus recently hosted him on Radio Free Leader to discuss how the creative principles of graffiti art can help anyone make an innovative impact at work.
David: When most people think of a graffiti artist, they either think of punk kids spray painting on streetcars, or they think of Banksy. But you take the lessons from both Banksy and the punks, and apply them to anybody that’s trying to make an impact in the world.
Erik: When I first started exploring art at the age of 30, the art that I was most drawn to were the street artists — the Banksys, the MadCs, the Kobras — this really thought-provoking, almost anarchistic art. I saw it as a form of communication.
So even though I did do sculpture, writing, and photography, I [became a] self-proclaimed “graffiti artist” because that was what interested me the most. And it was the most sticky — the fact that I was a graffiti artist who was on the corporate lecture circuit talking to Fortune 500 companies about innovation and creativity.
But one of the things that I’ve learned is that art is not about creating a product, but creating thinking. Whether that thinking is complex problem-solving, figuring out supply chain distribution opportunities, anticipating emerging trends and future markets, or painting a self-portrait, that process of thinking is all the same.
David: That’s so amazing, because in a corporate setting, when we talk about the flipside of creativity or of art, we use the word “innovation.” Which is funny to me, because a lot of times what blocks innovation is that lack of thinking, right? So art is about creating something that provokes thought and attempts innovation, whether it be a product, a service, or just a procedure or process.
Erik: It very much is. And so much of our perception of creativity is largely based around myths: “You were born either with or without creativity.” What I have experienced is that creativity is basically deprogrammed out of us through our academic institutions and through our organizational learning. When we deify those as absolutes, we lose so much of our creative potential. We get this tunnel vision, focused on one specific point in time which, given the amazingly rapid changes that are taking place around us, is no longer relevant.
“Discipline is what enables creativity, and creativity without discipline is like a river without banks.”
You can’t approach this as a tactic, or a strategy, or a best practice. You’ve got to be agile. You’ve got to have mental dexterity. You have to be able to navigate ambiguity. And that’s where the arts are one of those training grounds for being able to look at a blank canvas and not be intimidated, to be able to step forward and start creating, even if you don’t yet know what the end product is going to look like.
David: You are totally speaking my language.
You said something really interesting — you didn’t pursue being an artist until your thirties.
Erik: You know, I was a model student. I was trained to get good grades so that I could get a good job, so that I could make lots of money, and then build security, and then retire, and then be happy. That was my entire operating system, and it worked very well.
Around the age of 30, I had what my wife and I call an early midlife crisis. The dot-com bomb blindsided me, as it did so many other people, and I was completely ill-equipped to deal with such a significant setback. And it wasn’t, “You know what? I’m going to be an artist.” [That only came about] through tremendous suffering, and hardship, and a loss of identity and ego, because I lost all of my financial security. I lost my job. I lost everything I had identified with.
Mercifully, it was through spending time with some artists who cared about me that I became fascinated with their view of the world. They say that once you’ve lost everything, you are free to explore anything, and that’s really where this started. I found new life in this exploration of the arts.
And I wasn’t making any money at it. It didn’t provide any financial security, but it provided a flicker of hope, a reason to get out bed in the morning. There were so many unhealthy choices I could have made to numb the pain that I was feeling, and I have great empathy for others who have experienced pain or hardship and have turned to unhealthy addictions, because I get it. Fortunately, I didn’t, and I found new life through art.
As I began to explore that, I couldn’t get enough. I almost became intoxicated by this idea of studying the masters, studying the psychology behind art, studying the techniques on how to paint, how to see, how to sculpt, how to write. I approached it from a sense of unbridled curiosity and fascination, which I think taught me faster than any formal art training would have. And that’s where that new brand evolved from.
I think J.K. Rowling said that, “Rock bottom is a great place to start. Build a new foundation.” That’s truly what happened to me, this process of a very analytical, practical, rational business thinker morphing into an imaginative, innovative, creative, explorative artist.
David: The life history that you just unpacked lines up with a lot of the research that I unpacked in The Myths of Creativity. We have this misunderstanding that these things are binary, that there is being the educated, disciplined, intellectual, academic person, or being the freewheeling, freethinking, creative, explorational person. What I heard was you taking that same disciplined process as a student and applying it to the arts, and learning a lot more a lot quicker because of that process. There’s a creative element, but there’s also a lot of discipline involved for any artist who manages to provoke thought on a wide scale.
Erik: My career would not have been possible if I had not had that structured, analytical approach in the beginning. And we need that. We need structure. We need discipline. I needed that academic background be able to circle around [creativity,] to see it from different angles.
The largest take-home from my book is that structure creates freedom. Discipline is what enables creativity, and creativity without discipline is like a river without banks. It will just run without a focal point, without an end goal in mind. And we’ve got to not only create that passion, that curiosity for unlocking the future, but we also need to build actionable substance, and steps, and discipline by which to get there. We also [need to] have the agility by which to navigate bumps in the road, and to face resistance, and to work through it. And that takes tremendous discipline. It is far easier to teach an analytical, business professional how to be intuitive or creative than it is for me to teach an emotional, intuitive artist how to be structured or disciplined. And so that’s really where the concept for [The Spark and the Grind] came from. It’s not “either, or” — it’s “yes, and.” They work as a yin and yang function together.
“You get promoted for having all the answers, even if you have the wrong questions.”
David: We see the same thing when we start working with businesses. There’s this idea that, “Oh, if we can just get freewheeling and creative, if we just look like Google or Pixar, that’ll solve the whole thing.” And what a lot of people don’t realize is that those firms are so innovative not just because of the quirkiness, but also because of the discipline with which they bring that quirkiness into a tangible, scalable idea.
Erik: One of the most common questions I get is, “Hey, what are some examples of companies you’ve worked with and the creative ideas they’ve implemented?” And I’m hesitant to give specific examples because that’s what worked yesterday. Once I give an example of what Google does, of what Uber does, of what Airbnb has done, then we try to plug our ideology into that old formula. But consumer behavior changes daily. And so rather than give a man a fish, I want to teach him how to fish. I want to teach him how to think, how to adapt, how to be mentally agile. It’s an expanding of consciousness, an expanding of emotional intelligence to be able to unlock problems that haven’t yet been invented.
David: One of the things you explore is this idea that we need to be seeking out things that make us uncomfortable, things that we don’t any expertise in, things that we have permission to be a novice in. And that’s so counter to most organizations’ cultures, because you don’t get promoted for saying you don’t know the answer, right? You get promoted for having all the answers, even if you have the wrong questions.
Erik: Right. We were promoted for getting 20 out of 20 on our spelling test, getting 100% on our math test, and our children migrate towards that which they’re affirmed for. When they’re affirmed for doing well in these linear subjects, they will move in that direction. If they’re not rewarded for philosophical thinking, complex problem-solving, the arts, then they’re not going to go that direction.
“We’ve got to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
In business, growth and comfort cannot coexist, so we’ve got to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. We’ve got to create cultures and environments that reward those mini-bursts of creativity and those opportunities where we might fail. And failure is not the opposite of success—it’s part of success. And it’s the culture inside that organization that [chooses] not to shame failure, but rather encourage it as an opportunity to self-correct.
And you know, it really comes down to hiring individuals that aren’t linear, formulaic robots, but free thinkers who have the company’s best ideas in mind. [It’s important to] all be unified in a painted picture for the future, but it’s not one leader tyrannically dictating how to get there. It’s going to be a collection of diverse, creative thinkers that are all going to take different paths to get there.
Our complete ideology is centered around risk mitigation, [but] we forget to look at the risk associated with being too structured. There’s so much disruption with social, mobile, and cloud technologies. We’re coming into artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, virtual reality—things that our learned minds, our scholastic minds, are not prepared for. We need to be able to let go of that and latch onto something new, onto changing trends in consumer behavior. Mental dexterity, agility, and emotional intelligence are the new Holy Grail for individuals and organizations.
David: And our current education system isn’t teaching that mental dexterity. It’s affirming, “You are as valuable as you can memorize concepts and spit them back to me.” But we probably can’t overhaul the education system in our lifetime. You have three sons; what do you do to affirm the skills that we just talked about?
“Mental dexterity, agility, and emotional intelligence are the new Holy Grail for individuals and organizations.”
Erik: The onus is going to be on the parents, because our school system is not going to change. I used to be the biggest angry voice: “We need to change the educational system!” But when I did that, the people who were getting caught in the crosshairs were our most valuable resource: the teachers. The teachers are the ones who are nurturing the kids. They became teachers because they wanted to grow young minds into the best possible version that they could be.
So what did I do? Ignite fascination and curiosity in [my boys] outside of the classroom. School is going to be school. They’re going to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic. And frankly, that doesn’t interest me all that much. As their dad, I don’t want to teach them how to read. I don’t want to teach them how to do math. In fact, a lot of the math that they did, I can’t even do anymore. What I wanted to do was ignite their fascination beyond the four walls of the classroom. I wanted to bring culture and history alive to them — travel with them, teach them about the arts, teach them about empathy, teach them about love, teach them about suffering, and then work with them on their own artistic talents. My boys ended up being singers and songwriters. They play musical instruments. They also do a lot of painting, and exploring, and photography, and filmmaking. Every one of those skills is all about the philosophy of problem-solving. And it has allowed them to become very agile and adroit in handling the challenges that they’re experiencing in college right now.
David: A lot of the things that we’ve been talking about can be done on a managerial level with your team of people, treating them the same way you would treat a family, making sure you’re not squelching their creativity.
Final question: in your view, what makes someone a leader?
Erik: The ability to ignite other individuals, and to help them become the very best version of themselves. A leader breathes life into those around them, not through formulas, but through empathy and through understanding what lights them up. Because once they’re self-driven and ignited from the inside, all the leader has to do is step out of the way and help guide them going forward.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.