Art Can Save Our Workplaces

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantLately, I've encountered a lot of working people who see the world in very rigid terms. Things are/aren't this way. We have/don't have. It just is/isn't right.

Seeing the world around us in dualistic, opposites-only terms may feel safe at first, but it can eventually lead to an extremely limited - and dull - life. If you believe that everything is all or nothing, or that if you're not exactly right, you're wrong, or that there are just simply good people and bad people, no one in-between, you starve yourself of possibility and wonder.

In the workplace, decades of industrialization and rigid, bureaucratic systems (many of which we first encounter in school) have stifled our holistic, colorful, and fluid understanding of the world around us. Many of us were taught that there is one right way to do things, and that wondering "what could be" was, for everyone except brilliant scientists or inventors, a total waste of time.

Creativity was often the realm of a few "gifted" kids, and the rest of us were there to put our heads down and just do the damn work.

And that is so unfortunate, because we are all creative beings, no matter what kind of work we do or hobbies we enjoy. We are all capable of creating something new, whether it's a different perspective, a more elegant process, or a beautiful handmade thing. We are all capable of creating art.

Art, in my opinion, is really just anything intentionally configured or arranged in a new way that makes us pause and take notice.

A fluffier definition, from Merriam-Webster, is "something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings."

Art can be anything beautiful that you see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or sense in your being.

Art expands our understanding of the world and of ourselves, and it will save our workplaces and our worklives if we let it. I see its potential to save us in two ways:

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantFirst, art sparks "wordlessness," a term I'll borrow from Martha Beck. Wordlessness is the state in which you can transcend all of that either/or nonsense in your brain and actually know what it feels like to simply sit with possibility and paradox. It's when you can watch a massive predator hunt its prey in nature and see the experience as both beautiful and terrifying. It's when you witness death and let yourself be with the horror and peace of it.

Our workplaces are, for the most part, built on words. Almost everything you do every day probably involves words, whether it's speaking with peers, writing reports, or explaining something to an audience. Words are very concrete - they can be known, pointed to, shared, or taken away. They're beautiful things, and I'm grateful every day for the ability to use them, but a landscape full of concrete doesn't leave much room for growth or beauty, which is why so many of our workplaces feel totally stale and lifeless.

We need more wordlessness in our worklives. We need more exposure to things that make us fall silent and experience a deeper connection to ourselves - which, paradoxically, allows us to think more clearly. As Thomas Merton so beautifully wrote, "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." This is the beauty of wordlessness.

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantSecond, art can save our workplaces because it cultivates meaning. It cultivates embodiment, that sense of being a spirit alive within a body, which is what reminds us that our lives have meaning. I think art does this simply when we expose ourselves to it, but it creates meaning most impactfully when we ourselves are motivated to create art and share it with others.

Seth Godin's definition of art, from his book The Icarus Deception, is lovely: “Art is the act of a human being doing generous work, creating something for the first time, touching another person." 

What can you do more generously today that would touch the heart of someone else? What can you create in your own life that feels meaningful?

We are all artists. We are all capable of creating beauty and embracing paradox, even when we're part of a culture built on sound bytes and the either/or vitriol of rigid thinking.

The only way we're going to save our workplaces, and ourselves, is if we embrace art - that nascent possibility within us, a fresh way of seeing the world, and the generosity of our spirits. The concrete, Soviet landscapes we've built up around us (literally and figuratively) are crumbling, and the rigid thinking that served you as a young person growing up in the workforce is no longer your friend.

In today's world of work, we need your creativity. We need your depth. We need the complexity that is inherent in every person's lived experience, and we need you to share it with us.

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantIf you're not sure how to access your creativity, depth, or complexity, then I encourage you to start by surrounding yourself with as much art as you possibly can. Look at it. Listen to it. Feel it.

It will help you remember who you are.

I'll close with a quote I love from Maria Popova of Brain Pickings:

This is the power of art: The power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness.