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Even Executives Study Art

We walked together down a genuine country road. Farmland extending for miles in each direction. Our footsteps – loud against the dirt path – were the only sounds, apart from the light breeze and an occasional flap of bird feathers.

We walked apart from one another, with at least two feet separating us in any which way. It was not the walk of friends, rather of three people who were comfortable enough with each other to hold the silence, but not so comfortable that our arms or hands could touch. No, we kept a safe distance.

There was something in the air – a quiet appreciation of the beautiful vastness around us. It was as if the feeling was shared between the three of us. This silent awe sparked something like recognition in me.

Finally, our host said something into the din. “If you had only told me three years ago that I would be walking down a country road with you...” He said with a small laugh. “I never could’ve imagined.”

He wasn’t talking to me, but rather the other woman in our midst. She laughed as well, and agreed with him. They started off on the conversation of how they met, and I listened quietly, my footsteps keeping pace on the country road.

I felt the same way, though, for different reasons. There was something surreal about the moment. The peacefulness of it all. The knowledge that I was walking besides two people, who, as far as society’s standards, were powerful and influential people. Two people you don’t usually walk in the dirt with, but rather who you meet wearing silk shirts and wool suits.

To set the cast:

· He – A top executive at one of the largest hotel conglomerates in the world;

· She – The CEO and Founder of two esteemed organizations (and, my boss);

· Me – A young woman just trying to blend in.

My job over the past two-and-a-half years has made me skilled in brushing metaphorical shoulders with executives. The work I do involves working with, almost exclusively, executive teams. In a place like Washington, D.C., these people are abound, but nonetheless, impressive.

Executives, as I’ve come to know them, are people who have developed an agile ability to juggle many, many things, to lead through uncertainty, and, the good ones, have an impressive ability to inspire others. On their shoulders, they take on the weight and future of entire businesses, and more than that, the future of people’s careers – their salaries, their livelihoods, their security. It’s a task that comes with no small amount of stress. With pressure coming in from all sides, decisions to be made hourly, and ultimately, not enough time in the day.

It’s a world that I’ve been both blessed and cursed to understand well. On one hand, these leaders are captaining the organizations that make up our country’s economy and workforce. On the other hand, I’ve also seen just how twisted and convoluted those organizations can get. The systems in our country that employ people also tend to make them miserable, tired, burnt-out, unhealthy. A double-edge sword of the highest degree.

Living in DC, it’s been easy for me to write off these people as having values that are different from my own. I value nature, beauty, creativity, freedom and living life fully. The organizational world, as I’d come to know it, is one that tends to restrict and confine.

However, as I walked down the country road on that winter day, with two executives by my side, the conversation wasn’t about business or organizational dilemmas. Rather, we talked about the way that the beavers in the area build their dams with intense and sometimes destructive determination; about how octopi can solve even the most complex puzzles, and do things with their physical bodies that baffle human minds. We talked about art and nature and the challenge that lies in bringing a divided world together.

It was a conversation of ideation and inspiration.

At one point, I jumped into a conversational lull. “What did you study in school?” I asked our host, with genuine curiosity.

“Design.” He replied, with a pinch of pride in his voice.

I already knew what my boss had studied: Creative Writing. The same field of study as my own.

I nodded at his response and listened to him dive into a tale about his college days.

I thought back to my own. Back when I was in college and I told people I was studying creative writing, I would often hear the following response:

“Oh, you’re sure to get a job with that one...” They’d say to me with a sly wink. As if asserting that because I had picked a certain path in school I was doomed to joblessness and struggle.

I don’t know if it was my own naiveté or just a deeper underlying faith in my path, but I always, somehow, knew that those people were wrong.

The starving artist stereotype is just that – a stereotype. Sure, art degrees may not naturally feed you straight into a high-paying salaried job, and it’s also not a limiting factor. The leaders I know, the really successful ones, incorporate both the business-mind and the creative mind into their work. Through the work they’ve learned what it takes to run a successful business, but they also bring creative solutions to their problems. A skill that has been developed and cultivated through their other creative passions and pursuits. They engage with new ideas, they let those ideas flow and move. Often times, they are bringing their creativity and artistry into their work all the time.

Had I decided against being a creative writing major because of others’ fear I would have regretted it my whole life. And honestly, I might be in a much different, and worse-off career than I am in now.

If “left-brain” pursuits aren’t your calling, then that’s okay. Of course it is. But it’s interesting how our society discounts the skills required for artistic expression.

I don’t believe those stories anymore. Not for a second. The study of art and creativity can make you successful. These two people walking by my side were the proof.

Walking down that road, it struck me that I was able to see these two impressive people in that moment for who they really were. They – without their expensive clothing and polished shoes, but rather in knitted hats and dirt-covered boots. Them – without having to act like the most powerful people in the room. At their core, they were creatives. They were talented in other respects, too, of course. But in their hearts – in the way they spoke about their passions outside of the executive environment – that’s what shone through – artistry.

The top dogs, the executives – the art major and the creative writing major, walking side-by-side.

In that moment, I felt it the truth of it. Art, creativity, design – it teaches us something about the world. It shows us to look at the world through a lens of possibility, of beauty. It shows us how to make something, out of nothing.

It’s easy to become scared of a path of artistic expression, especially in a society, or governmental-era, that seems to value it less and less. But don’t squash your creative dreams. Don’t stamp out your passions just because it feels safer.

For, surety is just an illusion.

Be you – fully, boldly. The rest will fall into place.


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