LOOKING THROUGH THE LENS OF POTENTIAL: LESSONS FROM A VISUAL ARTIST
Launching a new venture is a creative act, and challenges faced by passionate entrepreneurs run parallel in many ways to the work of professional artists. Like entrepreneurs, artists give shape and life to new ideas through processes of experimentation and discovery. And like most entrepreneurs, artists invest a great deal of passion and emotion in their work. Entrepreneurs can learn much from an accomplished artist, someone who has grounded a career in the creative process and who teaches creativity and innovation to business leaders.
I first met Shaun Cassidy as part of an entrepreneurial session at the Innovation Institute, a program in Charlotte, North Carolina, that brings professional artists together with senior executives to help them unleash personal creativity and build more innovative workplaces.3 Shaun is an artist leader with the Institute, a professor of sculpture at Winthrop University, and an internationally recognized sculptor and painter. Much of his teaching centers on the theme that creativity is an iterative process, where one idea leads to the next, with each iteration building on a prior result toward an increasingly valuable piece of work. His creative process echoes my own founding experience and that of many successful entrepreneurs I have observed and studied.
Shaun tells the story of how his idea for an acclaimed public work started with a mistake. Working on a commissioned sculpture for a beer company during an art residency program in New York in 2005, he spilled wet concrete on an old sweater that had been a gift from his wife. In an effort to save the sweater, he let the concrete dry. “The next morning,” he says, “I pulled the concrete out and found that the fibers from the woolen sweater had become embedded in the concrete.” He set aside the concrete chunk for a day or two, and “began to recognize that this chance happening revealed a really interesting potential. And the potential was that if you cast concrete over woolen objects or fabrics, a residue of the fabric is going to get embedded into the concrete.” This led him to an entire series of works where he cast concrete over woolen gloves, hats, and socks, then pulled the objects out, leaving a negative space in the concrete along with fibers from the clothing.
A year later, Shaun was awarded a commission to do a major public art project, a sculpture in a Charlotte park. The city sponsors wanted something highly durable and vandal proof to be built on a low budget. He and his assistant went around the community collecting clothing from the people who lived around the park. They then cast a long winding bench out of concrete, into which they embedded and removed the community members’ clothing, leaving overlapping impressions of the community’s personal belongings in the bench as it stretched through the park.
“The idea for that project,” Shaun says, “could never have come had I not recognized the potential in that first mistake. And, to me, it is an example of how one thing can lead to another, and to another. If you trust the process and you let the process play out long enough— sometimes over years—your solutions to problems will be more innovative because you’ve got a richer pool from which to draw. If someone had sat me down and said, ‘Well, design me a public art project,’ and I hadn’t had that experience in New York, I don’t think that the solution would have been nearly as interesting.”
Of the many lessons from Shaun Cassidy’s work and teaching, here are some that are especially relevant for new venture founders:
■ Allow solutions to come through a process. Shaun says that his conceiving is always the result of an iterative process. “It’s never just sitting down and thinking of a good idea or coming up with a way to solve a problem. It’s always the result of a process that might begin with something weird or accidental but then builds and improves over time.”
■ Look through the lens of potential instead of rejection. Shaun works with leaders to help them “develop a lens that will allow them to see the potential in almost anything instead of rejecting it instantly.” Every iteration of an idea, he says, “contains a nugget of potential that can lead you to another iteration of the idea. So in that sense, nothing you do is ever wasted.”
■ Don’t settle too soon. Shaun believes that too many people are content with early ideas, rather than pushing themselves to higher standards. “I think people settle way too soon,” he says. “They’re hell bent on coming up with the answer right now, instead of allowing it to develop and reveal itself. So, this idea of ‘not settling’ is very important to me. If you become static, you’re lost.”
■ Push for improvement until the very end. Early in his career, just before graduate school in England, Shaun worked for Sir Anthony Caro, a legendary abstract sculptor, who would sometimes force radical changes at the last possible moment. “He would force us to weld these big sculptures. They would take six months, sometimes, and we would think we were closing in and finished. And if he thought there was a 1 percent chance that we could make these sculptures better, he would have us drag out the torch and cut these things in half, and flip them upside down. He would force us to make incredibly radical moves very, very late in the process. So this notion of laying it on the line all the way through the process, not just the beginning and the middle, but even at the end, in order to make something innovative and breathtaking, that was a real education.”
■ Use disruption as a positive force. One of Shaun’s many artistic residencies was with the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California. “In my own studio I have a lot of equipment welders, overhead crane, all this kind of stuff,” he says. “I got to California and the director led me into the studio where I would be working. There was absolutely nothing in the studio, just polished concrete floor. Of all the residencies I have been on, that was the most disruptive to my normal creative habit. I had to spend the first week of that residency walking and thinking and reflecting upon what I wanted to do and responding to the emotional and physical characteristics of the site. I went to the hardware store with the facility guy’s truck and bought a whole lot of wood, and bought a chop saw, and bought a cordless drill, and built this huge installation out in the landscape. And it never would have occurred to me to do that had I not been so disrupted from my normal flow. I think that I learned more about myself on that residency, and made probably the best work of my life because of that disruption.”
As both Modality’s change of direction and Shaun Cassidy’s creative lessons illustrate, we can’t fully predict what opportunities will emerge as our ideas become real. Therefore, the ability to read and adapt along the ever-changing startup road is vital to early-phase survival and longer-term growth. And although agility is essential, it is not enough. Equally crucial is our ability to learn—to shine a light through the fog of startup uncertainty and gather the relevant lessons to be found there.