Running a company is a challenging and creative undertaking — there are no boundaries, and no one from whom to ask permission. That’s one of the most rewarding aspects, but also one of the most difficult: Richard Branson said in his book Stripped Bare, “Business is like painting. You start with a blank canvas. You can paint anything, and there, right there, is your first problem. For every good painting you might turn out, there are a zillion bad paintings just aching to drip off your brush.”
Many assume art and business have nothing in common, but in fact, they share many predictors of success — for instance, the ability to see things in the world that others miss; to communicate that vision to other people; to take an idea and make it a reality. Perhaps that is why so many business leaders have side gigs as musicians or painters: Paul Allen, Michael Dell and James Dolan all play in bands. Even Warren Buffett plays a mean ukulele.
I’ve played in a band for almost as long as I’ve run my company and can speak to this profound connection between artistic pursuits and professional growth.
Here are five ways an artistic outlet will make you better at your job:
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1. Become a better teammate
Small companies require everyone to pull together toward a shared goal. A band is just the same: The difference between a great show and a loud mess comes down to collaboration. Everything from setting practice to choosing songs to scheduling shows requires each member to respect the wishes of the others. Even more important, they must be willing to put their own preferences behind those of the team. Our band has had to turn down shows for my kids’ birthdays, lacrosse games and prom pictures. My bandmates understand and accept these priorities, and they’re shared by the whole team.
The same applies at work: My colleagues are talented people with their own goals and responsibilities — some have to do with our work together, but many of them do not. Taking the time to understand and respect what your colleagues care about is one of the most effective ways to build and keep a talented team.
2. Make more meaningful connections
An artistic outlet keeps your empathetic “muscles” in peak condition and makes you a better boss and coworker. This is especially important in the Covid work-from-home era, where it’s easy to forget there’s a real person on the other end of that Zoom or email.
Art demands empathy: Your job is to make people feel something. For example, in a band, you have to make eye contact with the front row, shout out the bachelorette parties or notice which songs make people dance (and which ones clear the floor). Clive Gillinson, the executive director of Carnegie Hall, said in a Wall Street Journal interview, “Playing music requires you to be attuned to the emotions and perspectives of others. It’s a way to develop your capacity for empathy and see the world through different eyes.”
Related: How Finding a Hobby Will Make You A Better Entrepreneur
3. See the big picture
The total immersion of running a business tends to intertwine your identity with your work. When things are going well, you feel like the next Bill Gates. But when challenges arise, the pendulum can swing the other way into doubt, anxiety, imposter syndrome and other unhelpful things.
Playing for a crowd reminds me the world is a big place, full of other people with their own hopes and challenges, who don’t know or care what happened at my work that day. We’re all living in the moment — a skill that is often one of the first casualties of starting a company. When he wasn’t co-founding Microsoft, Paul Allen played guitar in a band called the Underthinkers. In his 2011 autobiography, he said, “Music [is] a form of therapy, a way to escape the pressures of work and the world. When I’m playing music, I’m in the moment, fully immersed in the sound and the feeling.”
4. Strengthen your creativity
Running a successful business requires you to see opportunities and solutions your competitors don’t. Art gives these creative skills a workout, so they’re ready to go when you need them. In 2019, Jack Dorsey said this about how his background as an artist influences his work: “I think [being an artist] helps me to approach problems in a unique way, and it helps me to see things that other people might not see. It’s about having a different perspective and being able to think creatively and abstractly. That’s really important in the technology industry, where you’re often dealing with complex problems that don’t have obvious solutions.”
Related: Every Entrepreneur Needs a Hobby Separate From the Company — Here’s Why
5. Make you brave
I’ve found playing for 25 people far scarier than doing a conference presentation for several hundred. The reason is simple: In business, you are representing a company. But when you create art, the thing being judged is you. For a natural introvert like me, you have to gaze into an abyss of terrifying possibilities: What if I make a mistake? What if no one shows up? What if people come but no one likes it?
The truth is that most of these things do happen: I’ve played for two hours in an empty room, forgotten all the words to “Country Roads” and blown my guitar amp 15 minutes into a three-hour show. Each was as terrifying as I had pictured. But ultimately, they were liberating because when the worst happens, and the world keeps spinning anyway, you re-evaluate everything else that scares you. And that is hugely valuable when it comes time to make bold decisions about your business with a clear head.
If you already have an artistic outlet, it is crucial to prioritize it. Alternatively, if you don’t have one, I encourage you to explore and discover an artistic pursuit that resonates with you. They’re not a distraction from your work — on the contrary, you’ll acquire and refine many skills that maximize your chances of success in business.
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