Organizing Theory & Artistry

Ruly Bookshelf: Unthink by Erik Wahl

Ruly Bookshelf:  Unthink by Erik Wahl
The book I hauled with me around Richmond this summer.  Here resting on a bench while my children play in the pop jet fountains.
The book I hauled with me around Richmond this summer. Here resting on a bench while my children play in the pop jet fountains.

Are you creative? Most people can answer this question quickly with a “yes” or “no.” Are there really two distinct groups of “creative” people and “non-creative” people? Are some people better at coming up with new ideas and some people better at executing those ideas? Perhaps. But you don’t have to stay stuck in one of those two categories. Author and artist Erik Wahl in his new book Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius argues that “breakthrough creativity is in all of us.”

Who is Erik Wahl? Erik Wahl’s economic story is a bit of a roller coaster. He graduated college into the exciting economy of the dot com boom. He joined a start-up and had a well-paid corporate job. He married and started a family. He felt secure and important and began leveraging his wealth into other investments. But then the dot com bubble burst and he found himself losing everything he had worked for and starting over at age 30 with a wife and 3 children under 5 to support.

After being stung by the corporate world, Erik Wahl rediscovered himself in the artistic community and found a new passion for painting. He came up with an idea to create presentations for corporations on creativity, blending his corporate experience with his newfound love of painting. His wife supported the idea and began helping him make the calls to market his skills. Erik Wahl now is a successful corporate speaker. His trademark is the type of “surprise” paintings where you aren’t sure what the artist is creating until the last strokes are made at the very end.

Unthink outlines 7 key elements of the creative environment. If you don’t think of yourself as a creative type, you might find the ideas radical. Since I would put myself in the “creative” person category, I can’t say that many of these elements were new to me and I mostly found myself simply nodding in agreement. However, I don’t know if I have ever seen these elements expressed in this way before and it is nice to have a concrete list of reminders.

Erik Wahl is a wonderful writer and the book is full of great quotes. Here are a few of my favorites, many of which have applications to organizational strategy as well.

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One very creative aspect of Unthink is how Erik Wahl makes his book read just like one of his surprise painting demonstrations. At the very end, he ties his elements together in a surprising way that makes the reader say, “Of course! Why didn’t I see that before?”

While this book is generally applicable to anyone, I felt it would be especially relevant to a couple of audiences.

Since I was mostly carrying this book around with me during my adventures in Richmond, I thought it would be wonderful if city and county governments were reading this book. We hear so much in the news lately about how cities that have been decimated in recent years by economic collapse are revitalizing via investing in the arts, such as Hannibal, Missouri and Detroit, Michigan. You can certainly see evidence in Richmond’s transformation of its investments in art, history, and open spaces. As Richmond begins expanding its economic base now into things like sports and businesses, it will be interesting to see whether continuing to nurture and invest in its arts and historical resources will be essential to continue its economic growth.

Teachers and schools are another core audience for this book. Learning the mindset of creativity and teaching children how to nurture this mindset within themselves would be a tremendous gift to the future.

Finally, “older” workers may find this book an excellent reminder about what it takes to stay fresh and relevant in today’s workplace. We all know that we may need to work perhaps into our 70’s and 80’s and that age discrimination typically begins around age 40. How do you avoid the age discrimination trap? You will need to constantly prove that you are “young in mind.” Discrimination is not just about gray hair but a perception of inflexibility and an unwillingness to risk or to try things differently. The principles in this book will help keep you young in spirit.

I confess, however, that I had a few disappointments with Unthink. I wish it had more concrete examples of how to apply these principles to a typical corporate job. Perhaps a follow-up book could be made where Erik Wahl the artist speaks to Erik Wahl the former corporate employee and shows how he specifically would use these principles in his former corporate life. I can also think of several concrete steps that improve creative opportunities in one’s life that have nothing to do with being creative and I wish the book had some practical steps like these. Finally, I wish there was a little more biography about Erik and his family, showing how his transformation into artist/entrepreneur came about, both the challenges and the successes and how their family worked through them. However, if this book is to be the first in a series, I am hooked!

I have to credit this book though for helping me make a breakthrough in my own thinking. As you know, my theme word for this year is routine. After reading this book, I made a realization about routine:

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As you can see, Unthink has much to inspire you and give your thinking a kick-start. It’s a great addition to your fall or back-to-school reading list!

*Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Unthink.