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The artist and the plumber


"Art is original. Marcel Duchamp was an artist when he pioneered Dadaism and installed a urinal in a museum. The second person to install a urinal wasn't an artist, he was a plumber." Seth Godin

The above quote is one I've heard many times from Seth through an interview I revisit regularly. While I always followed his thinking with this, I hadn't understood how I might apply it to myself until last night.

Backing up first, on Friday while out with a couple friends, one of them said to me, "you need to take what you've learned in your work and are practicing and create something of your own. Things you are using in your current work situation: 1) will never be a perfect fit; 2) you will better serve yourself by putting something out there which is yours." I walked away from that conversation with his commment fixed in my mind but was still having trouble figuring out where to start.

Last night while being a bad consumer and not watching The Superbowl, I was reading the new book from Joi Ito called Whiplash, which explores "how to survive our faster future." One of the book's nine principles is "Compass over Maps", which is explained as, "a map implies detailed knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity or autonomy in discovering his or her own path."

I don't know why the exact neuron in my head tripped the way it did but the "compass over maps" quote suddenly brought together Seth's quote about Duchamp as an artist rather than a plumber and my friend challenging me to create something of my own. One of the tools I use regularly in my work is The Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder.

It is very useful but it is not my own. When looping all of the above together what it has left me with is, "if I continue using this tool as intended and going no further or not using it as a building block to create something of my own, am I merely a plumber in this field rather than an artist?"

While I'm not yet convinced the answer to this question has to be 'yes' or 'no', it has given me a more specific lens to begin examining through and reflecting on creating something of my own within my own context and experiences. When creating anything there is a chance it won't work or won't be liked but it is also the bedrock of creativity and innovation.

Go Forth Boldly

p.s. As a fun aside, I went back to the discussion surrounding my initial reflection on Duchamp and found another curious tie-in, "I think we can all agree, that Beethoven was an artist and Shakespeare was an artist or that Joseph Beuys, who worked in felt and lard, was an artist. And it’s not that hard to extend it to, yeah well, so is Steve Jobs. When he did things, he did them with the right intent, for the first time, in a way that had an impact. Or I can say, when Scott started Charity: Water, and created a different way to both raise money and help people in the underprivileged world have fresh water and actually deliver on that promise. That act was an act of art because if it hadn’t worked, it was gonna fail because the structure was wrong and it wasn’t resonating... And so it’s easy to keep track of what art is by what it’s not. Right? It’s not following a manual, reading a dummy’s book, looking for a map. It tends to be people who work with a compass instead. Who have an understanding of true north and are willing to solve a problem in an interesting way." Seth Godin


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