Lessons from Art Camp

245“How did your week at art camp go? Did you finish a painting that you like? Did you create a work of art?” These were some of the questions I heard from friends and colleagues when I returned from my week of watercolors in North Carolina. My favorite summer vacation is to attend painting classes taught at residential art schools. Two years ago I attended Penland School and wrote about the experience in my August 2011 newsletter. This June, I went to the southern highlands of North Carolina and visited the John C. Campbell Folk School (www.folkschool.org) to learn plein aire watercolor.

I find these questions challenging to answer. I learned years ago that if I take an art class and focus on making finished pieces of art, I stop trying to experiment with new technique. For me, the secret of learning is to be adventurous and to try new and bold ideas. The results are rarely what you would expect. Some of my paintings are of questionable merit, others have potential. But the trick is not to focus on making something look good. When I try to make a tree look like a tree it looks dead and lifeless. When I wash the tree in purple and pink (who would have thought?) it glows with real life.

The lesson here for the world of business is we need to stop trying so hard to be right. Make mistakes, guess, explore options and the results will be more satisfying and sustaining, especially when working with people. Leaders who try to lead and act by what they read in books about leadership rarely inspire true followership. Look at how you handle mistakes. If your organization’s culture makes mistakes a negative mark on a person’s record rather than a learning experience, creativity and innovation will fly out the window. My art camps teach me how to be comfortable with mistakes and see them not as negatives to avoid but at the roads to true learning and innovation. I think this lesson applies even more powerfully in the workplace.