What art has revealed to me about work

Kelly McShane
7 min readFeb 13, 2022

For the past few years, I have been on a journey of recovery from stress and a bunch of other sucky things. During this time, I have embarked on a parallel recovery process; a quest into my creative talents as an artist. If you know me well, you are likely suppressing a quizzical look as I am not known for any creative talents. Beyond “creating” dinner, a lesson plan, and research, my creations to date have largely (read exclusively) been intellectual. However, after my must-watch movie and tv show list was depleted, I found myself in need of an activity. Something I could occupy my time with, instead of passively counting down the minutes in a day. My children had all done art, even during the pandemic. Their classes were instructional and engaging and they beamed with excitement when sharing their creations. It seemed to me that this offered a new experience that might also bring about some joy to my life.

Doing art, specifically water colour and drawing, has opened a new dimension with which to look at the world. Deep, I know, but true. My art instructors have consistently said: Art is about seeing things that others do not, and then attempting to capture them in your creations. Inherent in this definition is that one’s ability to see things can be improved and strengthened, thereby making art welcoming to newcomers. As a result of my artistic foray, I spend more time being aware of my surroundings, taking in what I see — — including shapes, tones, colours, shading, texture, and movement. This has enabled me to live a more mindful life and more fully appreciate the beauty of our living world. I told you, art has given me a new dimension to my daily life!

Alas, I am not here to persuade you to explore artistic pursuits, instead I wish to offer a bridge of sorts: What can art offer as lessons for your working self. A bold offering, I know, but one that is beneficial in our context where our lives are consistently shifting in this pandemic world and insecurities are everywhere.

Focus on process, not outcome

We are in a time when there are fewer “positive outcomes”. For instance, in my work as an academic researcher, it has meant, fewer successful grant applications and manuscript acceptances. A way in which some have survived this is to place an emphasis on documenting the process; that is the attempts, sometimes read as failures. In my workplace (academia), Dr. Melanie Stefan was among the first to introduce the notion of a CV of failures as a method to formally document effort and encourage others to recover from rejections. I see her position as a reminder that behind every lauded piece of work or success, there are countless other attempts, creations, and applications that were part of the process to get you there. Discounting the effort and learning process serves only to make outcomes more elusive and ultimately portrays this erroneous image of sequential successes and victories.

I suggest that we return to the notion of “growth mindset” and focus on trying, learning, bouncing, persevering, and being tenacious. I firmly believe that “mediocre art” that fuels curiosity and learning is better than doing none for fear of doing it wrong. When I have needed a bit of encouragement, I think of the words of my art teacher, “Somewhere in the world there is a flower that looks just like yours, so you can’t go wrong.” She reminds me that for every masterpiece we see at the gallery (online or otherwise), an artist has a sketch of attempts that were essential to their process. For myself, I end up doing multiple paintings of the same scene, each time pausing to reflect on how I managed the lines, the colours, the shading, the white-space. This is the true growth and personal development; the capacity to observe and reflect on your own process. This focus on process fosters on growth-mindset, and allows for the celebration of perseverance in the face of obstacles, instead of a unitary focus on success.

Fields and farms in Wheatley (Iterative mediocre paintings by author)

Draw on your strengths, after exploration

The notion of strength-based is familiar for me as a psychologist. In fact, most of my work to date has been about capturing processes that support desired outcomes, which I suppose is not surprising given that I am the flag bearer for process over outcome. However, I wish to explain how unpacking processes became my strength. As a researcher, I went against the current and pursued a generalist training, across a myriad of contexts, settings, and populations. I endured the constant feeling of insecurity of not being an expert in a field. In time, I came to see my strength; articulating how and why people and programs bring about change by drawing from a similar process, across a number of contexts, settings, professions, and client populations. I developed my resilience because I learned to work through the constant insecurity of being a non-expert in each new setting.

As an artist, I had no clue of what my strengths were and let me tell you I was nervous and uncomfortable. I hadn’t done art since grade 8 and back then my capacity for self-reflection was limited (I was a teenager, so really it was non-existent). So, I jumped right in, uncomfortable and all, and paid deep attention to my internal discomfort and moments of awe. In time, I came to realize that my skill as an amateur interior designer and passionate fashion purchaser was a great launching point for my artistic process. I love colour and am skilled at mixing colours in watercolour (not always, but more times than not). I came to know my strengths by repeatedly drawing and painting the same thing, varying the process slightly each time. Coupled with a focus on process and an underlying growth-mindset, I was able to see that my ability to capture settings and movement with colours was strong and I could reliably pull on it across pieces. A willingness to sit in my discomfort and insecurity was key to finding my strengths.

Colour filled valley (by author)

Art as process of managing your “imperfections”

The identification of my strengths in both my professional and artistic life was both reassuring and humbling, as inherent in knowing your strength is knowing what is not your strength. Just as I discovered my strength in colour-mixing, I also discovered that I have absolutely no capacity for perspective drawings. My drawing teacher said: “When drawing, you are honing your ability to notice imperfections or inaccuracies, and then deciding whether to address them or incorporate them.” The challenge is knowing when to address them and when to accept them. The skill to know when to address them and when to accept comes with middle-aged wisdom (or at least, that’s what I tell myself).

As for my artistic endeavours, I thought I would remediate my perspective deficiency by taking a course specifically on drawing buildings, having been inspired by a drama about an artist. I came to conclude, with the help of my watercolour instructor, that if I was willing to put in about 100 hours of intensive instruction, I could improve my ability to draw buildings in perspective. I have yet to decide if I want to address this; in the mean time I am practising some acceptance and only drawing trees and hills (with lots of colours).

Twisted cabin (by author, who accepts her imperfections)

Whether you want to call it you “areas for improvement” or “weaknesses” or “areas of challenge,” it is all the same thing. I consider them as acknowledged inadequacies. For instance, objective assessments, personal reflection and friendly feedback have all confirmed I suck hugely with details and have too much of a fondness for rule-breaking. These are two areas where I accept my skills as inadequate. I have developed enough self-awareness and acceptance to know that they will always be my blindspots. Accordingly, I strive to find members with complimentary skills, so as to practise acceptance of, whilst managing ,my own inadequacies.

Whether you take up artistic pursuits or not is up to you. In my experience, there is something beneficial in trying a new activity as a middle-aged relatively secure adult. It will completely destabilize your confidence and, in doing so, provides you with the opportunity for deep personal growth.

A focus on process continues to guide my work, as I draw from my strengths and mitigate my inadequacies. My wisdom at knowing when to manage or accept my inadequacies is still in process.

The Walking Bridge in Thornbury

A HUGE thanks to my art teachers, Erin (watercolours) and Brad (drawing) from Freehand School of Art.

--

--

Kelly McShane

Organizational Psychologist + Consultant; Passionate about Change + Wellbeing in People + Systems