business skills learned from art

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In the past 2 weeks, I've seen three different musical events and over the course of the summer, had a chance to see both the symphony (twice!) and the ballet at Stern Grove, and several concerts. At each of these, I've been struck by how much my education in the arts prepared me to work in the business world.

I'll never forget in one of my b-school classes a operations professor talking about how we needed to think about how amazing it was to go watch a theater performance and how every night a performer gets to the same spot on the stage at the same time and that the various elements from wardrobe to lighting to props and actors have to all work closely together to put together a coherent production. He encouraged us to be as diligent in the workplace. (He had obviously never worked in the theater, because no two performances are the same, but the semblance is there…just like at work.)

However, in watching the myriad of performances (primarily live music) that I've seen this year, I've thought a lot about what I learned from various artistic experiences I've had and how I've applied that to the work force. Here's my short list:

  • There are real deadlines and then there are deadlines.

In the theater, you HAVE to be ready to go opening night. There's no extra time, you have to be prepared to go on, even if you don't feel like you've rehearsed enough, or if not every seam has been sewn. Tickets have been sold and the lights are going to go down. It also means that there are a lot of sleepless nights as needed to prepare yourself for that first show.

By the same token, there were times as a dj when I'd forget that I needed to pick a new song. You know what, there's times where we could just called it a "two-fer" and be done with it, no listener the wiser.

I treat my current job much the same way. If there's a real deadline and I need to meet it, I'll be ready to go and ready to work to the deadline. If not, there might be some time to play with.

(Some day if you're good, I'll tell you about how deadlines rarely matter, but maybe that's just the ENFP in me talking. And for non-life saving jobs.)

  • Speaking in public requires a connection with an audience

I worked as a dj for 5 years across college and graduate school, did theater (primarily technical theater) in college, and also was a demonstrator/educator at the Orlando Science Center for a short while. Each of those jobs required me, as I still have on my resume, "to delight and entertain the public." It helps that I'm fairly outspoken and that I like to talk. (Being a goodly combination of Southern and Italian means it doesn't stop either.) But, until I was an adult, I was fairly shy and reluctant to talk unless I knew people fairly well. This meant that getting up and teaching even kids about science was difficult. Yet, I was so excited about lightning, or pulling tablecloths out from big stacks of glasses, that I lost my fear along the way.

Right below being able to get along with people, one of the best job skills anyone can have is being able to express an idea and tell other people about it. It's one thing to be able to write, but it's another to engage someone and draw them in to what it is that's so exciting to you. The thing is, that requires being able to read your audience and adjust as you see eyes roll or attention wander. I learned those skills from the harsh audience of 7 – 9 year olds to start, then from my peers as I moved into radio and into the odd foray into acting.

  • All projects need to be broken down into their components, sometimes specialists are needed

It's just like the first "research" paper you ever wrote in elementary school where your teacher gives you all the different steps (e.g. develop the topic, take notes, create an outline, write a draft, etc.). Putting on a show requires the same level of detail and has so many components. If you've got a theatrical production, you're going to have production designers, lighting designers, prop people, costumers, actors, possibly musicians, a paint crew, goodness knows what else. Each show gets broken down into its discrete pieces and a holistic project plan is pulled together. (No wonder MS Project looked so familiar the first time I saw it.) There's one person overseeing the effort (in theater, the director) and she or he spends time figuring out the best way to allocate resources for the development of the production. This is just like any large project in the work place, and I won't belabor the analogies.

Working in this way teaches you to appreciate the people who are specialists and who have talents you don't possess. Watching friends learn lines or become a different person is a rare gift, just like the stellar analyst, or person who just can envision the way a product should look.

  • Writing is re-writing

How I used to dread hearing that phrase from creative writing teachers. Good grief, how many times can one write a story? Yet, invariably I'd find that a story was that much more compelling because I had taken the time to deconstruct the elements and rebuild it in a way that said something profound or rare.  In the business world, I find that I often write reports, walk away from a short while, and then re-write them. I tend to find succinct ways to express myself, or connections between 2 pieces of information that had hitherto seemed unrelated. By allowing myself breathing space, but also drawing on the discipline of revisiting, I find that my writing is more compelling to the intended audience.

I will continue to add to this list over time. After all, that's my creative license, isn't it?

UPDATE 10/16/2007:

  • Sometimes the middle doesn't count as much as the start or the finish

When I was in a church choir as a child, our choir master once said, it's more important to start and finish well than to start ok, have a great middle, and then sort of flop at the end. He's right. I find that with work projects it's much the same. Some of them can be a complete beast, but the end result is so fabulous that you only remember the good part at the end. Your co-workers may feel ths same way.

  • Characters studies help to understand people

One of the things I do in research is to develop personas, or characters, based on the data we have on hand. I think working in the theater gave me a good sense of how to flesh someone out, without making a caricature or stereotype out of them. Much like the best acting, I can disappear into the person I create to understand how they interact with products, marketing or the company in general.

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