I studied acting in college and at the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center where the core philosophy is "Risk, Fail, Risk Again". It’s not a stretch to see how I wound up starting a business, but is an artistic or creative approach good for building a business?
I started my business, Eco-Bags Products, with few resources, not knowing what I didn’t know but knowing I wanted a platform for my ideas... a stage. I had what I thought was a 'big' idea ("clean up the planet one bag at a time") I wanted my ideas to go bigger and farther. I was comfortable “enough” with myself to “play the role” of a business person.
Confidence is a muscle
The confidence I had to start something from nothing came from my years of acting auditioning and training. Auditions are a big part of an actors’ job - show up, be seen, be rejected, continue on. And if you get a job, ask anyone who performs if they get nervous before stepping on a stage or in front of a camera. Most will say they certainly do and it doesn’t stop them. This is because when you show up to do something over and over, you are actually building a kind of muscle. A mental muscle is a lot like a physical muscle. Practicing an artistic discipline is a lot like training for a marathon. You show up, train or practice, day after day. Some days are better than others and over time you get stronger and better at what you do and still there are no guarantees. This is not about getting comfortable. This is about process. It’s training to be comfortably uncomfortable to stretch yourself, to be more agile.
When Eco-Bags Products experienced rapid growth with the Oprah Effect in 2008 and then a sudden contraction, in 2010, with the recession, I was scared and didn’t know what to do. I knew one thing for sure, rooted in my improvisational training... keep communications open with my team and vendors and be available and open for cues on what to do next. Most of the time the best ideas are not mine!
Whether you’re performing, presenting new ideas in a meeting or leading a team, the more you do things the better you get. The focus needs to be on growing into our roles and evolving in positions versus showing up perfectly. Allow for process.
Another part of practicing showing up is reviewing performance. In theatre, after every rehearsal and most performances, a director will take time with the actors and go over "notes". Notes are a way to review what was done in rehearsal or performance to “note” or adjust what worked (incremental pieces) or what didn’t work for the larger objective. It’s a way to support the actor to be taken constructively, not personally, to improve the overall “performance.”
Listening is a skill
You don’t have to be perfect to start something but you do have to listen to yourself, to others, and to “you” in relationship to others. Mostly, we all listen for when we can talk vs. listening to hear what someone else has to say. Our personal agendas block us. There’s a lot of discussion around active vs passive listening in the business world but not, as far as I’ve seen, the kind of exercises used in training actors that consider listening an essential skill. One of the biggest obstacles in business is ineffective communication. We have this idea that we’re either born good listeners or not. Imagine how much could be improved if listening was seen as a skill like writing or speaking vs. part of a person’s cultural DNA? Creative disciplines teach listening as a skill to be improved on many levels. It is a valuable communications tool.
Michelle Best is a master NYC based improviser and acting coach who frames listening this way - "listening is your superpower; It’s what tells you everything you need to know about what tactics you employ in order to accomplish your objective. Think of listening as data input. Only by truly receiving all that the person speaking is communicating - including the larger and often more revealing nonverbal communication - can you process what they are giving you so that you can respond from a place of pure understanding. From that place of understanding, you can communicate more directly, and to the core of what is specifically being addressed. You gain clarity, through listening, and can focus more directly on the 'how' to accomplish, having processed the 'what' that needs accomplishing."
Ellen Ornato, of The Bolder Company brings applied improvisation into businesses to build capacity. She says, "through improvisation we practice listening with our whole selves... to listen for both the obvious and the subtle cues people give through body language, hand movements and eye contact. We consider everything as an 'offer'. That translates to connecting on a different, deeper level. This is very different from the parroted level of "active listening" skills often taught in Corporate America.
In the arts, as in sports, we all know when we’re in a "flow state", that place where all that matters is what we’re doing in that moment. It’s the ball on the field, the players on stage or the paint on a canvas. It’s in these moments of pure absorption that ideas flow hours tick by... where ideas happen and "aha’s" pop. Why don’t we, then, spend more time playing, and getting to know ourselves, when we know it can be productive and potentially even fun? It’s because having fun always gets pushed aside for what we think are more important adult activities that we all wind up griping about. Switch it up.
Set up a creative "play" practice even if you think you don’t have a creative bone in your body. I did it and it got me to write my book, honestly. I started with a commitment to writing a haiku every morning which led me to writing about nothing in particular for twenty timed minutes a day which led me to writing a play and a few chapters of a YA novel which led me to writing and publishing my book The Magic of Tiny Business.
This is where setting up a practice to play can take you. When you start doing things that are new and uncomfortable, you start building what I call creative muscle. It doesn’t matter if you think of yourself as artsy or creative. The key here is you will be open to opportunities, engaged in what you’re doing, and you can bring it all into your professional life for greater overall wellbeing.