Last month I was enthralled listening to a panel of 6 amazingly creative street artists interviewed as part of the Wonder Walls Festival in Port Adelaide, Australia. These artists travel the world designing and producing unique and bespoke art that enriches communities and engages people in public spaces. When asked about the nurturing of their early talent, not one of them had successfully passed Art as a school subject and only one described a parent who had nurtured his curiosity and practice. All had followed their passion for the non-mainstream art form, rebelling against traditional art forms and engaging in civil disobedience. Today, all are respected artists and world-renown for their talent.
On the walk home from the Festival in Port Adelaide I pondered the book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” by William Deresiewicz. In his book Deresiewicz describes the lack of curiosity, the lack of interesting rebellion, the lack of moral courage, and the lack of passionate weirdness among university and college graduates in the United States.
When I originally read this book last year, my take on the author’s thesis had was that it probably reflected the increasing numbers of engineering, business and legal graduates being churned out by our universities, rather than any devaluing of higher education outcomes. But now I’m not so sure.
I am rather curious about what the Wonder Walls street-artists would have become had they been immersed in the fine-art tertiary system during their formative years. In addition to developing excellent generalist art technique, would they still have been curious about spray-can technique or the seemingly impossible perspectives of large-scale, rebellious pieces of work? Would they have toed-the-line of established norms or retained the courage to be adventurous, even disobedient?
In a Deresiewicz’s terms, could it be true that modern tertiary education is spawning “a generation of polite, striving, non-curious; praise-addicted; compliant, grade-grubbing nonentities”? As his title puts it, a generation of “Excellent Sheep”. If so, is there something to be learned from the comparison with the street-artist’s story?
Not Knowing + Curiosity
“Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.”
~ Eckhart Tolle ~
In my last blog I talked about ‘not knowing’ as a fundamental feature of Design Leadership.
‘Not knowing’ may be uncomfortable but ‘knowing’ can severely stunt potential. Certainty is both good and bad. Good for decision-making but bad for creativity and design. Being certain means you stop being curious.
An academic education facilitates learning, knowing and certainty. After all, that’s what is measured by exams: how well you know the answers, right? There is no risk in being certain… no pushing of boundaries… no new concepts… no mutations… no innovation! Excellent Sheep!
In the workplace, while being certain may be good for managing routine tasks, it is far less helpful for people leaders, entrepreneurs or change agents striking, and creating, new situations. Such dynamic environments need street-smart leadership borne out of not-knowing coupled with a genuine curiosity for designing original ways of thinking and doing.
“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole… and yet… and yet… it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland ~
If innovative street-art derives from the opposite process to that which produces excellent sheep, then I, for one, am keen to go down that rabbit-hole!
The talented street-artists I met last month talked of learning from each other and creating opportunities, such as the Wonder Walls Festival, to come together. In answer to the interviewer’s question “who inspires you?” each genuinely talked about the other as their source of inspiration. Every street-artist present had a unique style and generously shared learning and technique with others who are both humble and curious enough to want to learn.
Might it follow then, that design leadership thinking (and doing) is best nurtured by curiosity and the sharing of knowledge among our peers? A peer coaching culture not defined by individual egos but by the desire to collectively improve the standard of practice.
The Wonder Walls Festival saw the coming together of street-artists from Poland, Scotland, New Zealand, UK and Australia. They are some of the best of their genre. They may have started as taggers, graffitists and even vandals but now have gained cult-followings, media and art world attention, and have gone on to work commercially in the styles that made their work known on the streets. In doing so, they have redesigned the art-world paradigm.
Redesigning the leadership paradigm to meet the challenges of the dynamic future requires the deliberate engagement of more diverse perspectives from which to share ideas and learn new ways of thinking. The more likely we are to not know, to be curious and to design better ways, the more innovative and effective our leadership will be.
Crowdsourcing leadership perspectives is one way of obtaining and sharing ideas or content for creating this new paradigm of Design Leadership. By soliciting contributions from a large group of diverse, uncertain and curious people, especially from an online community, rather than from traditional sources, means that together we can re-design leadership. While it might be uncomfortable and hard work, it’s a simple formula…
Not-knowing + Curiosity = Design Leadership