If you haven't touched a crayon since elementary school, Netflix's new documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, probably isn't at the top of your queue. But as an entrepreneur, you may want to watch it anyway. Through eight episodes, the series aims to help us understand how our designed world comes to be, from New Yorker covers to IKEA furniture. Each episode gives us a glimpse into the mind of one artist--his or her career, inspirations, and philosophies.
Spotlighting illustrator Christoph Niemann, who has illustrated covers for the New Yorker and Wired first episode starts with an overwhelming focus on sketches and illustrations. At first, it makes you wonder if and how the series is relevant to a business person. But as the episode continues, you'll note how, in a less than abstract way, entrepreneurship is a lot like being an artist.
In just one episode, I picked up six tips for artists that are equally applicable to entrepreneurs.
1. Identify what is most essential in a given moment
When conceiving an illustration, Neimann starts with a thousand different thoughts, then individually eliminates them until he's left with the one to three that he believes are essential to the question at hand. At any given point when building a business, this method of prioritization is crucial. After brainstorming all possible directions you might take (for example product features or strategic areas of focus), start to eliminate each one until you've arrived at the three that are most crucial to your current goal. What needs to be true in order for you to succeed? Throw away everything else.
2. Get up and go to work
In discussing his work day, Neimann quotes Chuck Close, "Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work." When you are involved with a nascent business, it's easy to let it take over your life. From conversations with strangers at bars to bedtime brainstorms, you might feel constant pressure to be "on" for when inspiration strikes. Instead, identify specific hours of the day for "work" versus the rest of your life. For Neimann, "anything that happens between 9 and 6 is the essence," though some of that work might happen outside your workplace (for example experiencing a museum for inspiration).
3. Change directions when things are good
In his mid-thirties, Neimann, despite being extremely busy and fulfilled, was in search of a way to grow. He decided to move from New York to Berlin, where he then experienced his most intense phase of work. Especially in a nascent company, quiet moments can feel rare and precious. However, these may be the safest periods in which to explore potential strategic shifts or initiatives. When things are not good, your brain is working a reactive way, in order to restore order. But when things are good, you can be proactive about the ways in which you might stretch past the status quo and truly innovate. As Neimann has learned, it's important to "constantly reinvent how you approach your work."
4. Give up control
Neimann describes how over time, he has learned to ignore his need for control. Using the metaphor of juggling, he alludes to a balance between planning (the balls in your hand) and serendipity (the one ball that is always in the air). He explains how the absence of plans opens doors that lead to "magic moments." While it is important to establish a vision for employees to work toward, and a strategy for how and when each workstream should hit specific milestones, it is also important to allow for unplanned moments. This balance enables you to be more agile, frequently questioning outcomes and pivoting when new, more important customer or business needs surface.
5. Practice everyday
According to Neimann, there is a downside to having a good idea -- the need to have another good idea. If having one good idea is as unlikely as winning the lottery, searching for a second good idea is like hoping to win the lottery not once, but twice. And when you are unable to repeat this stroke of luck, you are overcome with the pain or fear that you are permanently out of good ideas. Neimann encourages artists to relax, and instead of being hard on themselves, to practice every day. As an entrepreneur with a long-term vision, you might spend most of your time thinking about the big ideas and initiatives that will get you there. Be sure, however, to balance this with smaller, scrappier ideas in your day-to-day. This will enable you to practice leading and executing.
6. Don't aim for the finish line
Spoiler alert: The episode ends with Neimann concluding that the idea of "done" is not what he is trying to achieve. To him, being an artist isn't about completing and submitting illustrations. It is instead an ongoing exploration. As an entrepreneur, your work is never done. There are always improvements to be made or new milestones to achieve. Much like art, entrepreneurship is not about getting to some endpoint--there isn't one. Instead of placing value on an "end game" like acquisition or IPO, identify the desired stages of your company and how you want to grow. What questions do you want to answer during each stage? What needs to be true to move from one stage to the next?
Though I have not yet watched the series in full, a marathon-binge is in my future. If you're looking for something new to watch (and even if you're not), dedicate some time to Abstract. You'll quickly find that it's relevance to your business is rather concrete.