Erik Wahl, author of Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius, was once living a profitable, safe but somehow unfulfilling life on the corporate ladder. But when the dot-com bust took away his comfortable corporate life, he reassessed and decided that he wanted to fulfill his original dream and became an artist.
But as an artist, he soon realized the limitations of the art community, notably the widespread inability to translate creativity and talent into a living. This nagging discomfort with the artistic rejection of business acumen led to his Eureka moment. As he explains, "I found myself caught between an appreciation of corporate know-how and an appreciation of artistic imagination, without a full faith in either. That's when it hit me. My faith was not in one or the other. It was in both."
Wahl realized that the best path to creativity and fulfillment was to embrace both logical left-brain and creative right-brain thinking, rather than assuming the two are mutually exclusive. "Our greatest personal potential isn't reached by conventional, critical thinking alone," he writes. "It's also not reached by innovative, unconventional thinking alone. Our greatest personal potential is reached when unbridled imagination is applied with critical competence and when business acumen is embodied with artistic finesse."
Who You Were and Who You Are
As we leave childhood and become programmed to be critically competent, Wahl explains, we lose the sense of unbridled, uninhibited exploration that we once naturally had as children. That is why, for Wahl, the first step to achieving the perfect balance of competence and creativity is to remember "who you were."
In section one of the book, "Then: Who You Were," Wahl describes "unspoken maxims we embrace as children that even the most educated, experienced, advanced adults should never abandon." Ignorance leads to breakthroughs, for example, is the maxim that the less you know, the less encumbered you are with assumptions or preconceptions that bar new ways of thinking. Other childhood maxims to revive, writes Wahl, include mystery adds meaning, later means never (children want to do it now), and play is the supreme catalyst.
The next step in the journey to the successful blend of logic and artistry, writes Wahl, is to understand who we are today. Drawing on terminology from computer science, Wahl explains in section two of the book, "Now: Who You Are," that as we become adult, we lose the ability and desire to explore. We stop taking in all the information that we can and prefer, instead, to exploit — taking in only the information that we need.
The news, however, is not all bad. It's true that our propensity to efficiently categorize all information, throwing out what we don't need, can stifle creativity and artistry. There is, however, something inherently valuable about efficiency. "We need to be able to know when one subject is highly relevant and when another is irrelevant to a particular task," Wahl writes. "We also need the ability to be inefficient and forget categories in an effort to solve a difficult problem."
How to Be Picasso
In the third, prescriptive part of the book, "How: Who You Can Still Be," Wahl identifies the attributes required to unleash your creative genius, including being provocative, intuitive (trust more than your current know-how, trust your gut) and convicted (follow your convictions). Wahl, an artist who creates his paintings in minutes instead of months, also urges people to be accelerated — to go for "accelerated output, simple message, immediate impact" — as well as spontaneous. And just as artists surrender the paint that they put on the canvas, creative people must not be afraid to surrender something of themselves — their passion, for example — or to surrender to something, such as a cause or even creativity. Finally, Wahl urges originality — to work "boldly, uniquely and freely." Not by chance, the initials of this prescription spell the last name of artist Pablo Picasso.
A quick, inspiring read, Unthink is filled with examples of the famous and not-so-famous who have changed the world through their creativity and conviction. But perhaps the best example is the provocative and original author himself, who has redefined both art and the inspirational speech.