Erik Wahl is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, best selling author, and graffiti artist. He has also been described as the Picasso of Productivity, the Warhol of Wall Street, and the Renoir of ROI. Drawing from his history as an artist and business strategist, Wahl is one of the most in demand corporate speakers on the circuit today. Using on-stage painting as a visual story for his core message, he inspires organizations to increase profitability through innovation and superior levels of performance.
SPEAKING.COM: Academics are debating whether or not the US is currently facing a, “creativity crisis”. Those who claim that it is, cite that youth scores in creative thinking and problem-solving peaked in 1990, and it’s been declining ever since. What are your thoughts on this?
WAHL: I’m not a big fan of deifying academics and their interpretation of data about something as ethereal as creativity. Reframing that question, there is a crisis in consciousness and awareness today. We are in a world where everything has changed due to information overload. It’s hard to get the attention of consumers, it’s hard to get the attention of students, and it’s hard to engage employees.
We’ve been so lean sixed, myopic, and contractual in how we learn and how we take in information, because we’ve had to be become more focused on these very small, very specific tasks. It starts in grade school with reading, writing, and arithmetic, standardized testing and testing to the test, and creating robo-students who memorize formulas. They retain it just long enough so that they can regurgitate the information back to teachers and (later on) professors. That’s how we measure academic proficiency and that’s how these academics become academics – by rewarding their very focused linear exploration of knowledge.
In the end, from age five onwards, we have no experience exploring ambiguity, problem solving, or a blank sheet of paper. If it’s not on the task, we don’t do it. As a result, we often don’t develop the ability to master complexity, understand art, or even philosophy in many ways, because we’re so busy hammering out exactitudes.
That in turn has created this crisis of consciousness for the consumer. I would say the consumer and our world in general is less aware of art and why we have art. They are less aware of the beauty and the peace of a sunset. They’re less aware of family, laughter, or some of these simple, beautiful things that make life wholesome and great, because we’re so connected to digital, standardization, and achievement. What we’re really facing is a crisis of consciousness in that we need to pull away from being robo-academic and drone thinkers.
SPEAKING.COM: Why is it more important for a business to be creative than stable?
WAHL: I don’t think that’s true. Rather, that’s a product of dualistic thinking that says you can only fall into one of two categories: for example, you’re either creative, or you’re disciplined; you’re either liberal, or you’re conservative; you’re either black, or you’re white.
When it comes to business, you have to be both; you have to be stable, disciplined, and accountable, as well as imaginative, creative, optimistic, and idealistic. It is the combination of the two sides that is key and very few people or organizations are able to do both, because they fall into that trap of thinking they’re either creative or analytical, they’re either a hard worker or they’re kind of whimsical. However, limiting yourself to one category is not an answer for anyone.
A thriving business hinges on the dynamic tension of holding both together, not either/or, and that’s the beauty of how much opportunity there is in the future of business and all of these elements. There’s so much room to grow by letting go, and by becoming either more creative or by focusing, harnessing, and becoming more specific.
SPEAKING.COM: What does it mean to “un-think” and why is it necessary for getting breakthrough ideas and results?
WAHL: “Un-Think” was the title of my book in 2013, and the term refers to the unlocking or unleashing of our minds’ capabilities in a business setting – how to think like an artist, but act like an entrepreneur.
It’s about opening up emotional intelligence to be able to problem-solve in a broader spectrum, to be able to have a heightened aptitude for emotional sensitivity, empathy, perspective, and diplomacy. Those all happen by unlocking, unleashing, or unthinking what we all thought we knew to be true.
SPEAKING.COM: What are some ways people can rediscover their creative genius?
WAHL: Improving creativity really involves expanded consciousness – this non-dualistic way of thinking where it’s not “either/or”, but rather “yes/and”. That type of consciousness really focuses on emotional intelligence. It emphasizes the need to connect to people and to be authentic, while lessening the focus on academic proficiency and analytical skills.
Now both of those areas are important, but as far as improving creativity, we need to remove the stigmatization of being wrong, because once our kids are afraid to be wrong, once our employees are afraid to be wrong, they’ll never come up with anything new. They’ll simply be afraid of making mistakes.
Creativity is about trying – maybe not succeeding – but then trying something new again without fear of failure. Improving creativity entails figuring out how to auto correct or self-adjust on your own (rather than being shamed or stigmatized because of a perceived failure), working through setbacks, and increasing opportunities.
SPEAKING.COM: What role do extracurricular activities play in our creativity?
WAHL: Extracurricular activities allow us to explore, do unfamiliar things, and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Through travel, work, art, conversations, and cultural diversity, exploration is the greatest way to open up our minds to new experiences. If we don’t explore, we get comfortable mailing it in, going on auto pilot, or just responding with our lizard brain. However, when we’re in this mode of exploration, we become curious again and it opens up our minds, enabling them to think at higher levels.
SPEAKING.COM: When you were in elementary school, one of your teachers told you that you didn’t have the talent to be a professional artist. How did that comment affect your decision making later on in life? How did you eventually brush those words aside?
WAHL: That’s part of my personal story and though it helped shape who I am today, my story’s not unique. Children gravitate towards the things they’re affirmed for and they gravitate away from the things they don’t get affirmed for. All children begin to insulate themselves from disparaging remarks from a peer or a comment that they took incorrectly from a well-meaning adult or parent about their craft. In my case I was told that my art wasn’t great, so I simply migrated towards what got me rewarded. I became very proficient at knocking out good grades and testing to the test.
What happened to me is not a “woe is me” story. It was just part of the system that we all belong to. I just became aware of it at a later stage in life, and it led me down a different path. After an early mid-life crisis at age 29, I went back and started to explore art again, not because I wanted to, but because it became a way to express my despair.
There’s a tremendous opportunity for everyone to reopen that beginner’s mind and go back to when you were five. You don’t need to be a critically acclaimed artist to create art. You don’t need to get a badge, a merit of achievement, or financial compensation for being able to find respite or hope in creating a sculpture, drawing with your kids, finger painting, or taking photos. All of this leads to problem solving. All of those expressions are forms that our mind uses to navigate ambiguity and master complexity. That’s why art is so important. It’s not about the finished product, but about the process that opens the mind. That process of open-minded thinking and exploration is what we are losing in our kids and in our businesses.
SPEAKING.COM: There are so many talented artists and aspiring artists in the world that are struggling. What was the process like, coming up with ways to make your art stand out, and build a career as an artist?
WAHL: There are artists that make amazing art and have genius ideas, but they fail to translate, amplify their brand, build traction, or go out and do the hustle and hard work of growing their brand.
In my case, I have a really unique platform as an artist, in that I have an opportunity to share as a keynote speaker. I’m building this message and creating an experience through story, interaction, authenticity, painting, live music, and choreography. That experience creates a piece of artwork that is not just a painting, but a brand. It doesn’t matter as much if it’s painting of John Lennon, Albert Einstein, or Steve Jobs; what matters most is that that art reflects the experience that this entire audience had together in creating it.
I recognize that the painting itself need not be worthy of hanging in the Louvre. You might just walk right by it and say, “Oh, that’s just an icon.” However, my art gives people access to the painting’s background story, that process of creativity, and how they, as an engineer, attorney, sales professional, or insurance agent have that same access to creating great art. Maybe they can’t paint in three minutes upside down, but they have access to this idea, which is what makes my art so sticky. I’ve been able to build a brand around it, because I have a huge platform that I use to share a message to scale and that message is actually what’s exciting. The artwork is just a channel people use to see it and visually take in the message that they heard.
SPEAKING.COM: Why did you stop selling your art?
WAHL: You can’t put a price on “cool”, and I felt very uncomfortable commoditizing art. As I kind of entered late to the game, it didn’t make sense to me why some art was worth tons of money while other art was worth nothing. A dollar metric doesn’t accurately reflect the excellence of art, so I decided very early on that I’m never going to sell any of my art and I don’t. I want it to be an experience, and I want it to be available to everybody. I want it to be available to the poorest of the poor as well as the richest, but not let anyone necessarily own it outright.
That wasn’t meant to be a marketing concept, but it turned out to be a brilliant marketing concept because people want more of what they can’t have, and so by decreasing the amount of supply, it increases the demand tenfold.
SPEAKING.COM: Could you tell us about ART DROP and how it got started?
WAHL: Sure, ART DROP is where I hide my artwork. As I’m traveling, I periodically hide a painting somewhere in the world, and then I’ll start releasing clues on my social media through Facebook, or Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. My tribe of fans, or people that follow me are kind of on the look out and they start to get in touch with people they think are in the area where I’ve hidden the painting, asking them to go look for it. It creates buzz and it’s fun for me, since I’m on the road. It’s built an almost fanatical following of people who stay in touch or follow me to try and find out when and where I’ll be releasing the next ART DROP.
SPEAKING.COM: You often use your artwork to support charitable causes, do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
WAHL: I’m always working with organizations, charities, and foundations, but when I point to something specific it takes the focus off many other charities that need help. I would encourage everyone to take a pause and remember people who’ve been marginalized – people who’re having a tough time. The world is experiencing so much turmoil and focusing on the shootings in Orlando, pro or anti-guns, pro or anti-gay, pro or anti-Muslim, or Christian or Democrat or Republican. There’s just so much anger, hate, and toxicity. It breaks my heart and I say all this because I don’t want to direct people to one specific foundation or cause when all of them need help.
I encourage people to find a charity that you are passionate about – one that means a great deal to you, and give to that cause out of the need to soften your heart. We need to step back from the anger, hatred, frustration, and politics, and let the giving be a giving of our soul. Giving is an extension of yourself in remaining human, and so give to what matters to you most.
To bring Erik Wahl to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com