Creative influence


Dear Artist,

When IBM surveyed the world’s CEOs on how to thrive in business, technology, health and every other industry, the results almost unanimously pointed to one determining factor. More than rigor, management, strategy, integrity or even vision, creativity came out as the top skill. Less than half of senior leaders believe their businesses are equipped for an increasingly complex and volatile global economy, and their proposed solution is to bump up the value of imagination. Part of this plan is to set up projects like “skunkworks” — innovation theorist Everett Rogers’ term for a free-association think-tank on company time. The problem is that committees, by their nature, tend to kill ingenuity in favour of what’s comfortable. And what’s comfortable is usually what’s most familiar. In advertising, it’s called “status quo bias,” and brands rely on it to keep their customers coming back for the mediocre.


“The Kiss” 1969
oil on canvas
by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

While dining recently with a couple of sharp-as-tacks Millennial art directors, I asked about their creative goals. “I love to paint,” said one, still in her twenties and already a mover and shaker at a major publishing company, “but I want to have influence.” The other, a freelancer, talked about her art print start-up: “I went through design school, learned what agencies were looking for, put together a beautiful portfolio and landed my dream job right out of graduate school. After five weeks, I realized I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life and resigned.” “Are you an entrepreneur?” I asked, re-living the meagre circumstances of my own twenties. “I need to think about that,” she replied.


“Joie De Vivire” 1946
–a parody of Henri Matisse’s
‘Bonheur de Vivre’ 1905-06
by Pablo Picasso

In the truckloads of studies done on Millennials, they’re at once lauded as the most influential demographic and chided for being the most risk-averse generation in history. They’ve also been bombarded personally, since birth, with a daily onslaught of planetary bad news while being fed a steady cultural diet of dream-catching idioms and the unearned parental reassurance of being the future’s world-changers. Even with all this praise and empowerment, statistics show that Millennials are anxious and contributing to the lowest new business numbers in 40 years. By choice or necessity, if the future’s artists are working from within the establishment, it could still be a bona fide disruption. “Power is a tool, influence is a skill;” wrote Nancy Gibbs, “one is a fist, the other a fingertip.”


“Artist and His Model” 1926
oil painting by Pablo Picasso



PS: “It’s when you’ve found out how to do certain things that it’s time to stop doing them, because what’s missing is that you’re not including the risk.” (Robert Rauschenberg) “The pursuit of excellence is less profitable than the pursuit of bigness, but it can be more satisfying.” (David Ogilvy)

Esoterica: Studies on schoolchildren, academics, government, publishing, music and even the art world show that creative thinking is increasingly thwarted at every stage, in every setting, in favour of something we’ve all seen before. Leaders of organizations understand the need for disruption as a lubricant for radical discoveries — they actively seek out change agents to get the ball rolling but often balk when change confronts them at their own desk. For an artist, using the lifelong central conflict between structure and the wilds of unfenced imagination can be her own skunkworks for innovation. “People want change, but they don’t realize it means they have to change themselves.” (Peter Bray)

pablo-picasso_jacqueline-with-flowersDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” (Pablo Picasso)



  1. This made me laugh out loud! People want change but don’t realize they have to change! Yes.. comfort zone is very hard to give up! Thanks for reminding me!

    • Thanks for reminding me that creativity is a gift from God and it should be cherished. Creativity
      may be the end result of much frustration, but what a satisfying journey to many individuals.

  2. I find that generational generalizations are usually just a literary convenience. Times change, mostly as to the accoutrements of our lives, but people rarely change as a species. Although some appear more refined or more educated it seems as though they are not by and large significantly different from those of the past. That being said, humans always push at their various envelopes and come up with different solutions to problems that are not so different. Art is much the same.

    • I could not agree less. people change all the time. It is not easy but they can do it like no other species can. They can do it as a species as well as on an individual level. We are evolving just like everything else, but because we are conscious and self aware and have the capacity of creative thought we can actually affect the nature and direction of our own evolution. I can chart the changes I have made in my own short life so far. They have been painful and hard won. I am 52 years old. I am not the same person I was when I was 22 or 32. Circumstances changed me. And I have affected change. My current work revolves around the nature of change. One thing seems certain to me. Our biggest difficulty in embracing change is our refusal to let go. We think we know something or have something or have gained something….we became creatures of gain and collecting and accumulating…it seemed like the safest thing to do in an uncertain world. That very thing will kill us and every thing around us. We must learn the skill of letting go. Creativity teaches us that. Letting go is an intrinsic part of the creative process.

      • Catherine, I am interested in what you have to say and agree with you. I actually love trusting the unknown, but I have to remind myself to let go sometimes.

        I’m curious about the work you are doing involving the nature of change. I am looking for a way to get involved with a think tank group involved with the ideas of change, potential, imagination, ideation, letting go, etc.

  3. Ah. A poke in the ribs! Just what I need to prevent complacent comfort settling in. As always, I find these letters just the right balance of validation and challenge. Thanks, Sara.

  4. John Francis on

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. So often it happens that you bring a perspective, and words of confirmation that ‘brush away’ my frequent wondering: Am I the only one that is frustrated by the tsunami of mediocre music, film and television I’m subjected to. I’m retired and live in Toronto. I spent the first half of my working life in Theatre and, following the cutbacks in Arts funding in the early 80’s, made the transition to Music Production. I’ve always found that Design By Committee simply doesn’t produce worthwhile results in either ‘medium’. The sheer number of films being released that are re-makes of originals, sequels or stolen ideas leaves me never going to a cinema. Television in Canada is beyond embarrassing but is given attention and focus simply because it’s ‘Canadian’. That’s no excuse for poor work. After a lifetime of being passionate about Rock ‘n’ Roll, I’ve given up listening to any music other than Classical works. During the 90’s, working in independent recording studios, there was a general consensus: The only real problem in the Music Industry is… the Industry. Nowadays, I simply say: We get the radio we deserve.

    • OMG John! Classical works only? Poor you. Do we live in the same country? I’m 71 and keep myself 41 by listening to diverse musical works. Since I will become a Zumba instructor next weekend, I am transported into many new music genres that move my soul – as well as my body. Here is an example: Just for fun, and unbeknownst to my husband, I will be performing a Zumba dance number to aforesaid music for him at our 50th anniversary party in June. Not many ‘brides’ will be doing that (speaking of creativity and boldness and change agents)….

      Also, I have teenage grandchildren. Last week our (American – not sure if this makes a difference or not) grandson decided to tell us what he enjoys in the world of music. I watched the 5 minute 14 second video that he forwarded and almost fainted!! When I asked him if he was okay, this is what he wrote:

      “Grandma, its an escape it a good song I’m fine don’t worry actually the music fans that have most in common with metal fans is classical music in terms of personal creativity and things like that if I saw something like that in real life I’d feel sick.”

      Despite total lack of grammar and punctuation, it was indeed fantastic communication between two vastly different generations. Take a peek..

      He also thanked me for watching the video. Now how cool is that??

      Yah, I agree with you and others that there’s lots of crap out there but let’s remember not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Thankfully we have the choice to pick and choose.



  5. The education system is much to blame for the attitude to right brainers , the creative ones. The education system is perpetuated by the left brain world. It promotes right brain thinking but once a student starts exercising right brain thinking they are labeled as trouble,misfits, different–they don’t fit in. Creativity threatens the education system. This continues in the workplace where you have to “tow the line” to get ahead or just maintain your position.

    I am a 71 artist that has worked in a variety of jobs including teaching in the public school system. When younger people find it hard to achieve decent employment they certainly don’t want to risk what little they have by being creative. It’s too much of a gamble. Food on the table becomes much more important than feeding the creative process. I speak from experience . In my younger years I sacrificed the subjects I wanted to paint for subjects that were/are more marketable which dried up a lot of my creativity.

    Creativity is valued until it is exercised. Then it is thwarted because it threatens the status quo.

  6. We artists are the holders of the creativity torch, and I am proud of it. Be conspicuously crazy, teach in a costume, even in church, if you’re not heard, speak in charles schultz trombone voice. When asked to clarify, they’ll be listening. Submit the pink resume. Accept the rolls royce fart. I want to marbelize my station wagon so no one is willing to chance hitting me. Do a creative exercise daily…characters in clouds or 5 lines. Add a self-challenging handicap: like “non-living”. Use big words. Make new ones up. When challenged look at your cell phone and make up a definition. Do it for fun. There’s no fun in same-old.
    Last 2 cents, with so much i-phoning, lack of face to face communicating, I think high schoolers should learn lettering and letter manipulation morphing to perspective. And writing headlines so they can communicate in 8 words the core of ideas. Use visual skills to convince. You’ll use it forever. Practice 5 lines…each day of 5 days give a subject for the same 5 lines and see how far the envelope gets pushed. Then do five ashalt road-repair squiggles, what do you see? These fight same-old communications. The cleverest won’t be richest or handsomest or typical winners. They will be most likely to succeed. Developing creativity is a practice that can’t be graded, just practiced. If it pleases you, it’s successful. I loved hearing that Georgia O’Keefe said she wouldn’t be so famous if she had been a better artist. In the end, creativity will be key.

  7. I can’t help, but wonder if those CEO’s who answered they valued creativity above all else were secretly mourning their own personal sacrifice of creativity for power.

    All humans appear to value creativity until it gets in the way of surviving or retaining as noted ‘the status quo’. If there is a trend to devalue creativity I suspect it’s another symptom of our culture being stunted by fear (fear of the unknown or fear there won’t be a future). The problem with fear is that it tends to be a self-fulfilling curse.

    I think the only antidote is to live a creative life. The creative people who’ve passed through my life, even numerous decades ago, are like lights in the dark. Some of them I can still smell their perfume. They aren’t just artists or creative people – they emit a spirit of creativity that never dies – like a rainforest emitting oxygen. I want to be like that – a creative oxygen producing artist. It’s a work in progress! :)

  8. In Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain not only documents the higher level of creative contributions of introverted people, but of people who work independently, not in “think tanks” as Sara mentioned. Today classrooms as well as the work place encourage people to think in groups, and individuals as well as we as a society are losing out.

  9. Liz Potgieter on

    What a beautifully written insightful letter, thank you…. and so very true. Absolutely love your very relevant quotes at the end… esp. Robert R.

  10. Melinda Field Carwile on

    As usual, this letter gives me exactly what I Need to hear… Thanks to all..
    As I stare at my painting sort of satisfied at the accomplishment of rendering a “beautiful image”
    I am so deeply dissatisfied with the lack of innovation in my work..

    It is difficult for people to understand ..
    Artists do..
    I thank you again for this amazing community

  11. I don’t think I could ever convince myself to give up classical music for rock and roll, or hip hop. I did enjoy seeing my granddaughter dance hip hop in her recital. I enjoy lots of kinds of music but I gotta have my classical music! My opera! I get a lot of cocked headed looks when I mention opera. I live near an opera festival and I go to every one. I think that one rock concert would do me in. Others love rock. OK with me. I love all sorts of art . I am old enough to see that some of it is purely crap. But still OK do it if you like. I like to see operas and hear music I do not like. It expands my horizons. I find it REALLY hard to let go of certain things, such as my books. I am a saver. Have already apologized to my kids for the mess they will someday have to handle. I do try and let go. It is just very hard. In my 80’s. Donna Veeder

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My art represents an artistic journey that has been on-going for more than thirty-five years with help and guidance from many wonderful artists. Now, with years of plein-air painting experience, study and solo exhibitions, I believe that my current work has reached its highest level, reflecting the depth of my absorption in the wonder and beauty of the world around me.  I have learned that, as an artist, I will never stop looking for better ways to express my feelings in art and that struggling to more fully understand myself is integral to my painting; a philosophy that was part of every workshop I taught. Still is.


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