Many years ago when I was a budding and impassioned young painter in junior high school art classes, a teacher found me staring morosely at a canvas on which I had just made a giant mistake. “It’s ruined,” I said. He looked at the canvas, unsure which from my young perspective comprised the offending colors or shapes, and said, “There are no mistakes in art. At every moment your canvas – your landscape – is changing. Just use what you see now.”
And therein lay a bit of wisdom I would forget and relearn many times over the next 40 years. I made many seemingly wrong turns and odd choices in my life. As my peers honed in on clearly defined goals early in their careers – becoming well-known orchestral musicians, doctors, attorneys or senior executives – I seemed to flounder. I tried many things with a modicum of success: working as a singer, a classical guitarist, an actress, a playwright, a journalist and a teacher. I volunteered at homeless shelters, launched a not-for-profit and became a leader in a Buddhist organization.
But suddenly, 18 years ago, I seemed to veer sharply off-course when a temp assignment as secretary to the chairman of a large insurance company morphed into a job as a communications consultant.
Nothing in my life had prepared me to be a communications consultant. I didn’t know how to be a consultant. I didn’t want to be a consultant; I didn’t want a day job at all – and certainly not in an insurance company. What could be duller? I browsed through the files of consultant reports from Bain, McKinsey, Mercer, and Booz Allen and found the jargon stultifying, almost incomprehensible. In fact, the entire corporate world seemed alien: rigid and grey, evoking the maddening stasis of a fogged in airport.
But there I was, the temp summoned into the chairman’s office. “You have a real future here,” he said. “Tell me what you want to do and I’ll put you anywhere in the company you want to go.”
Home to finish my novel was clearly not an option.
So I took a stab at a better answer, “I don’t know for sure what I want to do, but one thing that bugs me here is the way people write – especially to customers. It always sounds so phony – not like a human being writing to another human being. Half the time I can’t make out what anyone’s trying to say. Do you want me to fix that?”
“Yes,” he said. “In fact, we’re just about to hire a communications consultant. So fine, it’ll be you.” And there it was: the giant mistake on the canvas: my first, full-time, salaried corporate job.
What I learned there – and continued to learn as I made my trek from the insurance company to grad school for a degree in creative writing, back to corporate life as a communications manager at an acccounting firm, then on to management consulting – is that art exists first within perception. Art is in the way we hold up a frame to some aspect of life – the way we see the canvas right in front of us – and how we derive meaning and build upon that which we perceive.
But mere framing is not enough. In his critical writings (Theory of Fiction, ed. James E. Miller, Jr., p.158), the novelist Henry James discusses the art of framing, noting the difference between a mere “slice of life” and a true work of art, which emerges when one is able to find the unity within diverse bits of data or experience: “in other words…the point at which the various implications…most converge and interfuse.” That, James says, is what shapes a work of art and comprises “the very vessel of [its] beauty – the beauty, exactly, of interest, of maximum interest, which is the ultimate extract of any collocation of facts, any picture of life, and the finest aspect of any artistic work.”
Despite James’ overwrought prose, something resonates: The beauty of maximum interest. As a writer, a coach, a consultant or an artist, the challenge is the same: to help others see with maximum interest, investigate, appreciate and make the greatest possible use of what they know and what they see.