Graffiti artists, author and entrepreneur Erik Wahl redefines the term “keynote speaker.” Pulling from his history as both a businessman and an artist, he has grown to become one of the most sought-after corporate speakers available today, and his on-stage painting seamlessly integrates conception, creativity and "unthinking." He shares some thoughts as the VIBE conference approaches.
VIBE: You focus a lot of your message on the need for rediscovering the power of creativity within each person - yet there's a lot of corporate resistance to actual creativity in the workplace, no?
Erik Wahl: Our systems, both scholastic and corporate have created this resistance. Corporate America talks a lot about the need for creativity and differentiation from the competition and finding a competitive advantage. Yet when it comes to implementing strategy, creating a marketing campaign or writing a check - corporate America reverts right back to what they have done before: a regurgitation of old ideas rather than allowing space for breakthrough opportunities.
VIBE: What do you mean, briefly, by the concept of "unthink?"
Wahl: I published a book that became not only a bestseller but that was named CEO Reads book of the year on innovation, called "UNthink." Forbes magazine called it provocative with a purpose and Entrepreneur magazine called it the blue print for creativity in business. Unthinking is the unleashing and unlocking of our minds' ultimate capabilities to break beyond our existing paradigms to discover new solutions. The concept is rooted in Einstein's famous quote that imagination is more important than knowledge.A Unthinking is more important than critical thinking for the future of business. Now to be clear…critical thinking is still 100% categorically necessary for flawless execution - but it will only get you from point a to point b. Unthinking is limitless. Critical thinking also serves as a block discovering our creative genius or uncovering a breakthrough opportunity of innovation.
VIBE: You're unusual in that you're an artist as well as a speaker, and someone who comes from a corporate background - how do those three seemingly disparate careers intersect?
Wahl: Art and Business go hand in hand for me. They work together in dynamic tension to create superior performance. As a performer, I am a translator. I take the ideology of artistic vision, creativity and passion and translate it into actionable business substance. There exists a preconceived idea that the art world and business world are entirely separate. I would argue that you are not either a business professional or an artist - you can, and should be both. "Art" is a verb. It is a new way of seeing the world and orchestrating your teams to harmonize their notes into a new symphony of business strategy. The world of art and business are shared space just like our logical and creative mind have shared space where opportunity abounds.
VIBE: The VIBE audience will include many people who must frequently put into effect incremental change rather than expansive change - how can a more creative approach help them?
Wahl: Creativity is not an either or proposition. It is "yes and." Creativity is both incremental and expansive. We must not wait for big ideas to strike. There is a discipline to creativity. Incremental tactical improvements help streamline operational efficiencies. It also frees up our time and mental space to entertain and then engage in breakthrough ideas that have the potential to jump the tracks and leapfrog the competition. As leaders we must foster an environment where it is ok to question the status quo, to take risks, to step back and look at the larger picture, become part of the larger picture. This orchestration enables the leaders to build the emotional connection to the mission and drive future discretionary effort from their employees. It helps paint the picture of why we are doing what we do. When we all have a shared vision for why we are serving, creating, marketing, growing, the clouds part and the sky is the limit.
VIBE: You suggest that people break free by being more provocative in the workplace - is that risky?
Wahl: In my book, "UNthink," I outline how to be provocative with a purpose. Once you have a defined brand strategy you are able to move freely within that realm. If the goal is to grow market share and grow your business you cannot be mediocre. Mediocre is boring, mediocre is invisible, and the marketplace on mediocre has already been cornered. If you want to grow your business you need to attract attention and be visibly differentiated from the competition. I would turn the question around and ask, 'Can we afford to be conservative? What if we were to expand our own definition of risk beyond the structured approach to minimizing liability and begin to look at the risk of being too structured in our strategy against a rapidly changing economic consumer landscape?'
VIBE: What's the one idea you hope people who hear you speak adopt?
Wahl: That breakthrough thinking is available to anyone, anywhere and at anytime. We secretly believe that creative genius is reserved for the chosen few - for the poets, the painters, the writers. The truth is that breakthrough creativity is in all of us. It is us. It is the process through which you and I discover all that we were meant to be and do. This is as vital to your happiness as it is to the value of your work.