I’m passionate about helping organizations manage change. It’s been a major element of my training and life’s work. Certified Change Management Professional (CCMP) is a designation not everyone pursues! Our keynote speaker would fit right into a CCMP group discussion and that’s why he was the closing speaker of this year’s RESOLVE Increments.
Phil Hansen is an author, artist, speaker, educator and bon vivant. After his 2013 TED Talk received a standing ovation and his video went viral, he became an in-demand television guest and business event speaker. Along the way, he continued his pursuit of “bringing art to people” through an array of projects and initiatives. He is the author of Tattoo a Banana, an advocate for arts education and the founder of the Goodbye Art Academy, which provides a suite of free resources to teachers and students everywhere.
Below is an edited summary of Phil’s talk. To watch the full replay and gain access to the highly interactive presentation and its resources, go here.
Walk into my studio today and you’ll spy a work-in-progress piece being produced with sawdust, glue and paper. You’ll also see a finished portrait of Nikola Tesla I made with a process that included a series of electrical sparks positioned above the paper to create “burn points” that built the larger whole of Nikola’s image. These works give you a quick glance at my artistic style and a hint toward my journey as an artist. This story includes youthful enthusiasm, debilitating self-doubt arising from unique physical challenges and an ‘aha’ moment that transformed my trajectory as an artist and mindset as a human being.
A Dream (Almost) Destroyed
In my middle-school and high school years, I was introduced to art and within that pursuit discovered pointillism and some of its most famous practitioners like Seurat. The endurance and patience required of such a technique really appealed to me. I felt like I had both in spades. I started doing my own pointillist drawings and became proficient enough to do them with a extremely fine-pointed writing instrument. I would work for hours and days on end.
The pointillism obsession became a physical problem. I developed a shaking hand. And this became worse as I tried to compensate and grip harder. By the time I was in art school, it became so bad that I was unable to hold a pencil. I dropped out of art school and turned my attention to other pursuits. The pull of art was strong, though. It felt like I wasn’t done.
However, the shake persisted, so I sought medical advice. The doctor’s analysis – “permanent neurological damage. The shake would be with me long-term.” That was a blow. The best advice the doctor could give me that day was, “if your hand shakes, why don’t you just embrace the shake?” I let that idea marinate a few weeks and then, picked up a pen and started drawing with a new style that accounted for and even accentuated the shake in my hand. It wasn’t my best work, but it was an epiphany. I could make art.
Change the Materials: Using New Tools to Achieve Dream
I moved away from tiny pens. But I stuck with pointillism – I just took it in a different direction, with larger tools and different approaches. My limitations broadened my horizons of creativity. The constraint was the driver. This was antithetical to what we learn in America. So often, it’s about getting more, being greater, everything pushing you toward accumulating more resources. This idea of constraints was just the opposite. And it was freeing.
Create the Constraint
That was where I started on this new artistic journey – searching for constraints. I thought, “what if throw away the brush?” And I created a painting of Bruce Lee using my arms, feet, head…basically karate-chopping the canvas with paint. It lit me up. I took this idea of embracing the shake, took it one step further with finding another limitation (no tools) and it was a revelation. The limitation was key to opening my creativity.
So, what could I possibly do next? Could I create some sort of ‘ultimate limitation’? What if I was an artist with no art? Weird idea, I thought. That fleeting thought became was a year-long project called “Goodbye Art” in which each piece produced had to be instantly destroyed. Again, weird. An example of this was the Jimi Hendrix portrait I made with 7,000 kitchen matches. I dropped the last match in place and then lit it. I went on to use chalk, chewed up food and table wine for subsequent pieces. Yes, it was food I chewed up and turned into a Britney Spears portrait. I like pop culture!
Creative Destruction and Adapting to Change: Systematic Creativity
Making 23 pieces for Goodbye Art that had no lifespan beyond the time I was creating them was daunting. But, I think it led me to contemplate some larger truths. Things change. We must adapt. And to create change, we must be willing to let go of the past. And this letting go helps us leap into the next task or journey with our whole heart. This has been useful in my personal and professional life.
What’s next? Where do the new ideas come from? I get these questions a lot. One way, I generate ideas is a process I call, ‘Systematic Creativity.’ It’s just analyzing some work you’ve done or things you know, putting elements of that work into discrete buckets and then randomly combining elements. You might do this in the kitchen when you don’t have the exact ingredients. This is a way of not only generating more ideas but finding that disruptive idea –possibly something, that – in hindsight – seems obvious.
The Limitation Versus the Self-Limiting Belief
After my TED talk, I had a lot of people coming to me asking me for advice about overcoming limitations. Honestly, I knew my own story and how it slowly took shape, but I didn’t know how to translate that to the situation of others. But it made me curious, and it eventually became a big project where I interviewed people from every state in the nation and 30 other countries. I asked them about their limitations and created a written-word art piece out of what I learned.
One revelation for me after hearing these stories was discovering the distinction between the limitation and the self-limiting belief.
The limitation and the self-limiting belief combine to create the challenge. I imagine a challenge presented to a group of four people. Watching four people attack the challenge – you see different approaches. Maybe two get stuck. One plows right around the obstacles. Another gets by through trial and error. It’s fascinating – the different experiences are produced by the self-limiting beliefs. My self-limiting belief was that if my hand shakes, I can’t be an artist. Do you see the difference?
The key for me, and for others I would find out, was getting creative with the limitation and ignoring the belief. How can we confront challenges like this daily? Every day, we have limitations and self-limiting beliefs. The choice is to ignore our beliefs and ask, “What can I do with my limitations?” How can I make art with a shaky hand? Sometimes this process can be helped along by talking to someone – in my case – that conversation with my doctor. His offhand (no pun intended) comment about embracing the shake was really part of a messier, longer process of getting from point A to point B.
Transforming Your Mindset
Having now gone through this process of exploration and talking to others who have done the same, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned there is a lot of failure involved. But there is also belief. And that we need memory – to remember the process, the missteps, the blind alleys. If we have an attitude that says we are OK with these missteps and we have a belief that we can figure out our way around or through barriers, we’re on our way to transforming our mindset. And after going through all that, personally or professionally, we must able to let go of the results and move on to the next thing – which in my case could be making a 13-foot-high portrait of the Mona Lisa using hamburgers!
Gain full access to Phil’s talk and resources (including hamburger Mona Lisa) shared at RESOLVE Increments Week Four here.
Phil’s story and the work he has developed is great creative inspiration. As he mentions in his talk, he is the author of Tattoo a Banana, a guide to turning anything and everything into art. If you want more Phil, check out his TED Talk or join his studio’s mailing list. If you want to talk to me about organizational development, team performance, or any of the ideas you encountered during this year’s RESOLVE Increments, don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly or on LinkedIn.