Boredom: "The Secret Ailment"
The Anxiety Wars

Learning, Careers and Social Artistry


For a social artist, their in-breath is observing, allowing, listening, and understanding and their out-breath is connecting, enriching, inspiring, and enlivening. As with any artist, they seek out opportunities to stretch their capabilities beyond what they could imagine.

                                    ----Polly Superstar

For months now I've been trying to get a handle on what it is I'm trying to do as I make shifts in my own career. I operate better when I have a framework for understanding my work, so I'm always looking for the thread that ties together what can seem like disparate pieces of myself and my career identity. 

Serendipitously, I ran across  Nancy White's post on social artistry a few weeks ago. In a flash, it became apparent how everything I'm doing comes together.  

If this were just about me, I would have kept it in my career journal. But I realized it's not. Social artistry is something that many of the people I work with are trying to do, too. It's a work identity I see more and more people striving for without realizing it. I think it's a necessary identity, so it made sense to me to share. 

What is a Social Artist?

Through Nancy's post and my own research into social artistry, I came up with a few definitions that I think tie together

Etienne Wenger in a comment on David Wilcox's blog says that social artistry is

"knowing how to use who you are as a vehicle for opening spaces for learning. . .it’s about being able to use who I am to take my community to a new level of learning and performance."

Jean Houston defines social artistry as:

". . . the art of enhancing human capacities in the light of social complexity. It seeks to bring new ways of thinking, being and doing to social challenges in the world.

…Social Artists are leaders in many fields who bring the same order of passion and skill that an artist brings to his or her art form, to the canvas of our social reality. 

Social artistry is about creating space for change and transformation, which is what learning is really all about. How do we create the space for people to be together, to learn from their experiences and connections and to move them to make a difference in their part of the world? How do we help people grow into their possibilities?

Jean Houston, who developed the concept, calls this:

Creating the lure of becoming

What a beautiful image for transformation. We lure people into the process of "becoming," which is essentially luring them into the possibilities of change. 

Why Social Artistry? 

Etienne Wenger in his comment referenced above talks about the need for us to become "learning citizens" and to consider how we can act as learning citizens in this world. Social artistry asks all of us to consider how we create and support learning in our lives. How do we help ourselves and others continue to grow? 

This seems huge to me at a time when we see that lifelong learning  is so necessary for work. But more than that, as I look at the social problems that face us, problems that cannot be solved without all of us working together, becoming a social artist feels even more critical as an aspiration for us all. 

Social artistry is about understanding that deep learning is an emotional experience, not just an intellectual one. If the learning we are trying to facilitate goes beyond helping people develop mere technical skills and veers into the territory of supporting people in realizing and sharing their creative gifts, then we must see the work we do differently.  We must bring different awareness and skills to the process. 

The Skills and Attitudes of Social Artists


First and foremost, I think social artistry requires us to have a growth mindset. We must believe in the possibility of growth and transformation. If we don't, then there's no space for us to practice our art.  There's also no purpose for it. 

Jean Houston has more on what she sees as the necessary skills and capacities of social artists, including the skills to:

  • Work with diverse cultures and contexts.
  • Preserve existing culture, while helping a culture's members move to new stories and ways of seeing the world. 
  • See new trends and patterns in apparent chaos.
  • Help people work in collaborative networks and circles of connection, and move away from hierarchies and power structures. 
  • Present a model for a constantly learning society and new frameworks for learning.
  • Use story, art and metaphor to draw out individual and organizational potential.
  • Be a fool, a humorist or a comedian when laughter is required. 
  • Be a healer, recognizing that transformation is in some ways a process of creation and evolution that moves us to a higher order--to our best possible self. 
  • Respect the individuality and unique qualities of each person he/she works with, helping people grow into their own possibilities, rather than teaching them how to conform.
  • Reflect on experience and embrace the role of the inner journey in creating outer change. 

To this list, I would add skills in:

  • Being honest and transparent and creating a safe space for others to do the same. This builds learning, trust and community, all of which are essential to the practice of social artistry, I think.
  • Facilitating the creation of vision, helping people see potential, but then also facilitating the recognition of reality to create the necessary tension for change. 
  • "Deep seeing" and "deep listening."  This involves listening for what is being said beneath the words and seeing what is apparent, beneath surface appearances. And then facilitating others in the process of deep seeing and listening. 

Implications for Learning and Career

 So what does all this mean for learning and careers? 

First, I believe that the skills of social artistry are skills we should all strive to build. They seem to me the core of participating in a creative economy and building for ourselves the world we want to live in. Developing the skills and attitudes I outlined above can only enhance our capacity to perform acts of "radical imagination" and bring new problem-solving skills to our work and personal lives. 

On a very practical level, the skills of social artistry--using story, art and metaphor, working with diverse populations, working in collaborative networks and asking good questions--these are the skills necessary to thrive across a variety of occupations. In a creative economy, these are also the skills that keep you relevant and irreplacable. 

Social artistry as a a working identity has powerful career implications, too. If I see myself as a social artist, then I am using the skills of social artistry to uncover and share my own gifts, to get clearer about the ways that I can create space for learning and change in my corner of the world.  It keeps me more flexible because I am more than just my occupation. I am something bigger than my job, with many permutations and options for playing out who I am.

For me, seeing myself as a social artist opens up new lines of inquiry and discovery. For example, I created the images above over the course of a long afternoon of contemplation. Using art to explore the topic led me to deeper thinking and insights, which in turn led me to re-think what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. I am delving more deeply into how I can facilitate conversations and story-telling and how I can use practices like circles and art to deepen learning. What are my unique gifts and how do I use them in the world to help others find their own possibilities?

This is an exciting, inspirational and energizing way of looking at the work that I do. Already it has had huge implications for my thoughts about career and the ways I operate my business. I think it's something we should all be looking at to add meaning and inspiration to our work. 

What would happen for you if you thought of yourself as a social artist? How could it transform the work that you do? 




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Hi Michelle

I love this article. I'm a doodler so this article holds some interest.

Interesting that you wrote about this subject because in 2012 one of the things I'm focusing on is locating tools and resources to visually communicate text and data. Not everyone draws but there are a number of templates and easy ways in which people can create.

I'm more than happy to share

Hi Mireille--would love to see any visual tools and resources you're using and hear how you're using them!

I reblogged this post linking back to you. Hope you're OK with that.

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