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Childhood Lesson: Color Outside the Lines—How being a child artist helped me become a better business leader

Posted by Matt D'Arrigo, Jan 11, 2017 0 comments

“No one ever discovered anything coloring inside the lines.” —Thomas Vasquez

I’ve been an artist since my earliest childhood memories, falling in love with crayons, paint, paper, pastels, pencils—anything I could get my hands on. I would create with reckless abandon. Throwing colors, shapes, and scribbles onto paper feeling pure joy. Slowly, as I got older, I began to learn how to become a better artist. I learned how to control the medium, hone the skills and techniques needed to make my art look like it was supposed to, how to follow the rules. Although important in order to achieve the desired result, it also had its downside. I fell into the trap of focusing too much on the technique and final product rather than the process of creativity. I was not exploring the potential for creative discovery by breaking the rules and coloring outside the lines!

Growing up, one of my art teachers had a little cartoon on his desk that read “Why color inside the lines when coloring outside the lines is so much fun?” It clicked with me. The greatest lesson I learned as a childhood artist was the power and importance of coloring outside the lines—that’s where the magic and fun happens.

In 2001 I made the transition from artist to non-profit founder & CEO of ARTS | A Reason To Survive, a Creative Youth Development organization based in National City, Calif., that ignites the power of creativity in youth, inspires them to overcome obstacles, and provides them with the skills needed to become compassionate catalysts of positive change in themselves, their community, and the world. I now realize how important this lesson is and how it translates into the business world.

Here are my top 5 reasons how coloring outside the lines has helped me in business today:

1) It Takes Courage
“Creativity Takes Courage.” —Henri Matisse

Anyone can play it safe, follow the rules, and blend in. Taking risks, stepping outside your comfort zone, finding your own unique voice and style that sets you apart from everyone else takes tremendous courage. No one makes his or her mark on the world by being timid or following what others are doing.

People thought I was crazy for starting ARTS during the 2001 recession. They told me it would be too hard, the timing wasn’t right, I didn’t have any experience—maybe I should just work for an arts non-profit. There were many doubters, including myself. Fifteen years later we’ve created this incredible work of art and are going stronger than ever!

2) Mistakes Are Encouraged
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” —Scott Adams

If you’re making mistakes it means you’re trying new things, pushing the envelope, and taking risks. It’s the only way to be innovative. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and grow. “Mistakes” are often the beginning of a totally new direction that could not have been seen or imaged otherwise.

The first mistake I made was trying to immediately open an ARTS Center in 2001. It was my dream and vision, but the funds were not coming in. We explored how else we could provide our services with low overhead. By pivoting and launching outreach programs to hospitals and shelters, it led to success and gained the support we needed to open our first ARTS Center in 2007.

Working through mistakes and roadblocks also builds another key ingredient in success: resilience.

3) It Forces You to Let Go of Control
 “Let it go, let it gooooo…”—Queen Elsa, “Frozen”

As an artist, at some point, you need to let go of control, trust the creative process, and let it take you in directions outside your comfort zone. This can be applied in the business environment; if you try to control too much, you stifle creativity and you become a bottleneck suppressing others’ ideas and input. You need to trust and empower others, embrace new approaches, and be ok if it doesn’t work out. As a founder this can be especially challenging, but the only way to grow is to let it go!

4) It Affirms that Creativity is King
“To be creative, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” – Joseph Chilton Pearce

Being an artist or leading a business requires a tremendous amount of creativity. You can’t be creative by playing it safe and you must be prepared to be wrong. Everything is not always a home run. Fresh approaches, unique ideas, and creative problem solving can not only set you apart from others, but it can be the difference between sinking or swimming. When IBM surveyed the CEOs of the top Fortune 500 companies, they identified “creativity” as the #1 leadership quality for the 21st century.

5) It’s Fun
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein

Like my teacher’s cartoon said, coloring outside the lines is fun. We need to remember to find the joy in what we do, continually surprise ourselves, and have fun. If you’re having fun, others around you will also. It’s contagious.

Picasso said it best: “All children are artists; the problem is staying an artist once we grow up.”

We all need to reconnect and celebrate the child artist in all of us and remember the importance of coloring outside the lines.

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