What does art have to do with work in the 21st century?

This past weekend I spent time at an art class in the hope of having the kids provide drawings, wisdom and insights for my book, The Journey to Business Common Sense: What’s New is Old. Too often, people are having conversations about the future of work and the younger generation without actually engaging them in co-creating the future.

That is one of the reasons so many people have been challenged by the Millennial generation. We were too busy trying to fit them into our fragmented systems that we forgot to listen and understand who they are and what impact they want to have in the world. Having worked globally for many years, their needs vary country by country, community by community. I remember when I was on the leadership team of Emerging Markets at Cisco and I was trying to share how we could include Millennials in our strategy. One of my peers jumped up and told me that it was simply a US trend that was irrelevant to us. It was an awakening for me on how management was out of touch with reality. Some of the most amazing people I co-created with were Millennials from Turkey, Romania, Serbia, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and the list goes on. Imagine what would be possible if we actually wanted to change the system to include their needs? I can. We would not be struggling as much with the fact that we have five generations at work and we would have created shared business purpose that translated into business impact.

What is art?

Because we live in an open and connected world, I found myself in San Jose on a Saturday morning with 5-8 year olds.  I posted on Facebook that I was looking for gifted artists under the age of 19 (and I am still looking if you know anyone). What I learned was astounding and I need a bigger sample of kids to make any generalization as I hope that outside the Silicon Valley kids have different perspectives on life and work. I was also reminded of the time that I was suspended from elementary school in Montreal when my art teacher looked at my drawing and said, “Are you done? You call that art?” I gave her a very sharp reply that sent me home for a few days to think about my behavior. So when this teacher took me out in the hall on Saturday when I was asking the kids some questions and reprimanded me that I was asking “toxic” questions and she was going to send me guidelines on how to talk to children, I realized what the problem was.

I found myself wondering why some kids can’t openly practice art and create stories from the heart. When I asked one girl if she could draw what she feels it is like to be an artist, she told me she couldn’t. When I asked her if she was drawing from her mind or heart, she said mind. Already at such an early age we are teaching kids to over-think everything instead of imagining what it feels like to be an artist, a person who creates. We also started talking about work and the kids shared with me how their parents work to make money. The money is to be used to buy stuff, especially gifts for them. One five year old shared that her father hates his job and is always tired. And when I asked her to draw what she felt was fun, she drew herself playing by herself and with others and painted more than a dozen bright red hearts.

I felt joy seeing the kids create and every once in a while, the teacher would give me a commentary about how the kids don’t have attention spans and move from activity to activity. I kept my mouth shut since I was grateful to be there but I felt sadness that we have over complicated art class on a Saturday morning. Kids play. We work. We all need to bring play and fun back into our lives.


I asked the teacher if she was an artist and she pointed to her paintings on the wall. She shared that she works as an event planner and hopes some day to teach art full-time. She couldn’t make a living practicing her art. It’s a shame since she is talented. I then asked the kids if they thought Ms. Jones was working or playing and whether their teachers work. They all thought that teachers have fun and that one day they also want to be teachers. They are already thinking at such a tender age what they want to become and they don’t even know who they are. I don’t know about you but I want to live in a world where we ask kids what they love and what frustrates them instead of what they want to be when they grow up. Growing up is over rated if we forget how to play (and I don’t mean golf).

One observation I had is that there was tension between each kid creating their own artwork and not copying from others. There was no sense of co-creation when it came to creating their art. There was a fear that their art was not as good as others and if they looked at someone else’s work, there were shouts of “don’t copy my work.” I wonder if this translates into our current organizational frameworks. Have we been so conditioned to our individual grades and accomplishments that our co-creation muscle is weak?

I came home and shared my experience with a dear friend, who shared her story:

My experience with the kids growing up is that “art teachers” in any grade don’t think out side their little box – no creativity or expression of freedom.   Funny story – my daughter consistently got bad grades in art class and as a senior a D-.  She wouldn’t conform and went on to graduate from a College of Art & Design and received her Masters from California Institute of the Arts and has her art displayed in institutions all over the world.  It’s like all education, there is no room for expressing individualism and creativity.  It has to fit into a small little confined space of a curriculum created about 75 (or more) years ago!   It makes my heart sing when I hear Amanda talking about MIT and the experiential platforms that are there and research and self-expression are not only encouraged but demanded in order to graduate. Much is allowed and much is learned!

There is hope and there is work for each and every one of us to do in the world. In one of my book interviews with a 21st century leader, Roni Zeiger, Roni shared his conversation with his eleven year old daughter. He asked her to come to him whenever she felt rules were confining her creativity and talk about it openly. You can read his blog post about his son’s insights about how we can each learn from each other here. Roni is one of my heroes because he believes we all have something to contribute to the world where we are part of communities and he co-founded one of the most amazing peer-to-peer community, Smart Patients, to amplify the knowledge created by networks of engaged patients.

One of Roni’s passions is to study and improve the way we can get back to learning from each other and helping each other have a better life. As CEO of Smart Patients, he brings together peer-to-peer communities for diseases and a clinical trial search engine. This allows us to tap into the untapped knowledge of patients and caregivers so they can help each other while the healthcare system can learn from them. It is a vehicle for the patients’ voice to emerge in the clinical design process and getting more medicines and cures to market faster. And this is an open community that includes doctors who can listen to patients needs when they are not rushing from one patient to the next. Patients often become micro-experts on their disease and treatment.

Roni believes that each one of us is a leader:

Many of us are living in privilege in developed nations so we should be able to figure out how to make a living by doing something that matters. It’s everyone’s responsibility to do make it happen and have a community that helps us live a life that matters. I hope to aspire my kids to it.

Call to Action

Whether we have kids or not is not the issue. What I want us to think about and act upon is are we practicing our art or are we doing a job? We live in an open and connected world, where the gift of technology allows us to reach out to people who share our interests and jump on a video call with strangers, who can become friends.

Please don’t wait to be picked. In the 21st century, we can pick ourselves. How can you make your world smaller by creating a community that supports you? How can you infuse art in your work and have kids believe they can simply be? Can you imagine what you would do if you had a blank canvass? Can you go help someone else with theirs simply by having more conversations and less meetings?

Imagine what’s possible and please let me know so I can learn from you.

Ayelet Baron
Ayelet Baron
Ayelet combines lessons learned from more than a decade as a high-tech industry executive with her roots as a researcher, change catalyst and strategic communicator. This rare blend of expertise enables her to assess and advise individuals and organizations that seek to embrace new ways of working. She helps leaders transform and build healthy and resilient organizations. She is also a sought after keynote speaker on collaboration, leadership and building 21st century organizations. Her award winning business book, Our Journey to Corporate Sanity, helps you navigate a new path for business as a conscious 21st century leader.

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