What Artists (and Richard Branson) Can Teach You About Making Successful Changes in Your Career

What could an artist, who makes a fraction of your salary, possibly have to teach you about making a successful career change? I’ll give you a hint: it’s something Richard Branson, who makes unimaginably more than you and me, would agree with.

A new client, so unhappy in her job that she cries at work and is developing serious health issues as a result of the stress, told me last week, “I can’t quit my job until I find something Really Fulfilling. But I have no idea what I’d find fulfilling. I feel really stuck.”

This isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s one of the top reasons people give me for staying trapped in a job that’s draining the life out of them—holding out for the Right Thing to come along. If only you could discover the Right Thing, the Great Thing, that will give you ultimate job satisfaction (and financial security), then you could leave your current job. Coach, help me quickly name and land it!

When we think about trying something new, most of us would prefer a clear destination and a short, straight path to get there. No exploring, no wandering. Too risky and time-consuming! But consider this perspective from an artist.

[Wanting a clear path] pre-supposes you know where you want to go when you start. You don’t. You think you know, but you don’t really. And you might miss something important,” an artist friend tells me.

I’ve been spending time with Australian artist Kirsten Farrell, who has an enormous collection of paint swatches—those strips of paint colors you pick up at the hardware store. She’d been waiting all her life to use them for a Great Thing. When she shared what she discovered while waiting for the Great Thing to come along, I immediately thought about all of my clients who stay in jobs that drain them, longing for the Ultimately Fulfilling Job to appear.

When Farrell finally started creating with the paint swatches, the art piece evolved into a set of cards covered on one side with a collage of several paint swatches and on the other side with haunting text from Australian author Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector. She calls her work The Vivisector Oracle. It has become an intriguing performance piece, which involves you selecting a card and having your oracle read. People report getting deep meaning out of it, which the artist never expected.

As an audience to the art piece, you marvel at where it all came from. You might imagine that she conceived of the piece in its entirety, then simply executed. But you would be wrong. And herein lies the wisdom for us non-artists, who think that creating something new should simply be a matter of thinking of the thing, then making it happen.

“It’s a mistake to think there has to be a Great Thing out there to find, because if you persist in looking and waiting for it, you’ll never get anywhere. It’s ‘out there’ in your mind. It doesn’t actually exist. The leap doesn’t happen unless you start somewhere. You’ve got an idea. And it’s the difference between your idea of where you think you’re going and where you’re actually going to go…well, that’s the interesting bit,” the artist shares.

It’s true: being uncertain about what to do next and where to find it puts you in an uncomfortable state of ambiguity. It’s not clear what to do next.  Artists are more comfortable than most people around managing uncertainty and ambiguity, and that’s one of the things you can learn from them.

My artist friend explains, “The way to deal with discomfort around ambiguity is to create structure, which allows a certain amount of play but not endless. We don’t need actual endlessness, we just need the idea of it. We all like a simple structure, even though we think we want to be really creative. What we need is limitation. Make the structure at the beginning. Set it up so you can’t over think it.”

So how can you apply this wisdom to your career?

“Artists all use some form of structure or strategy to make their work. Even Jackson Pollack, whose work looks like chaos, had structure and purpose in the way he worked,” my friend describes. “I often structure my work by making lists.”

Structure and lists are an important part of creating your career path – using the Passion Discovery Worksheet from my Passionate Professional program to create a clear list of what you want next in your career resonates deeply with my clients.

What I notice, though, is people want to make the list, immediately spot the Ultimate Thing, and run straight to it. They have a sense of urgency about getting to the destination, no patience for exploring and unfolding.

But what we can learn from artists is that there is beauty and wisdom in the creative tension – the uncertainty of not knowing how the Ultimate Thing will show up. There is power in knowing what you want without knowing where you’ll ultimately end up. It’s the exploring and wandering that lead, unexpectedly, to the Great Thing.

My friend tells me, “The trick is to commit to working with what you have—do something with it. Don’t think, Oh, it has to be this great thing! You just have to start. Put one foot in front of the other and don’t put too much pressure on that being the thing. It can just be a step along the way. Do the thing that’s in front of you. Just that. Don’t judge it. Let it be. Explore. Enjoy it. See where it takes you next. After awhile you get to know the feeling of ahh, this isn’t it… and you can quickly change course.”

My successful clients do the same thing. They explore possibilities, try them on in some way, and continue exploring if they’re not quite right. The journey energizes them. One idea leads to the next until the Ultimate Thing unexpectedly emerges.

P.S. Richard Branson, who did not sit around waiting for the Great Thing, would surely agree with this wisdom. Here’s a great article by Entrepreneur magazine about the varied explorations that Branson and four other self-made billionaires have taken in their career journeys: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/228067.