Are You a Sculptor or a Painter?
The revelation of the positive vs. additive genesis
Various approaches to creation and innovation have been on my mind lately. I’ve spent most of my 24-year career being part of teams that were responsible for creating products and services, mostly in Tech. In many cases, we were evolving and reshaping something that already existed. In a few rare instances, we were given a “blank canvas” and tasked with the creation of something entirely new.
But, let’s not fool ourselves. Even when we all think that we are creating something new, it stands on the shoulders of past work, is shaped by cultural influence, and biased by our own life experience. What I find intriguing, though, is how people initially approach the challenge from one of two primary starting points:
- Fix a problem. This situation sucks, and the current process makes achieving this goal laborious and painful. How can we create a solution that removes the negative issues and friction of the sucky situation to let the positive shine through?
- Create a vision. We know the ideal end state and goal that people want to accomplish. Starting from a blank canvas, how can we create an ideal process and experience that helps them achieve that end state?
In many ways, this reminds me of the differences between sculpting and painting. For the purposes of this comparison, I’m visualizing painting with oils with a start from a blank canvas and a traditional carving style of sculpting with the removal of material from an original source of stone. Yes, I know that painters and sculptors now work with any number of materials using a wide variety of techniques. Please bear with me as I explore the imagery of the metaphor.
“It is the sculptor’s power, so often alluded to, of finding the perfect form and features of a goddess, in the shapeless block of marble; and his ability to chip off all extraneous matter, and let the divine excellence stand forth for itself. Thus, in every incident of business, in every accident of life, the poet sees something divine, and carefully scales off all that encumbers that divinity, and permits it to be revealed in all its transcendent loveliness.” — Source
Additive vs subtractive
Painters start with their blank canvas and begin adding to it the world that they envision in their minds. Colors are carefully selected and placed upon the canvas in various ways. They start with nothing and bring their creation to life.
However, sculptors start with everything they will ever have and begin removing what they don’t want. They also have a vision that they bring forth by removing that which does not fit the vision. The extraneous material is seen as a barrier between them and that ideal end state.
When you are inspired, does your creativity start from a flawed known state that you reshape into your image of perfection? Removing all that should not be there? Or, do you hold an image of perfection in your mind and begin adding elements to the solution that will make it possible?
A dreamer vs a realist
Painters visualize and place their dream on the canvas. It can be anything they want. A purple cat? No problem. Clocks that melt and drape over tree branches? But, of course. If they can imagine it, it can be.
Sculptors have to be much more realistic about what can be brought forth from the stone. A granite block cannot reveal a fluttering red feather boa. There are limitations imposed by the material and the tools. Try to remove everything that stands in your way of the vision, and the work may shatter and collapse.
What is your starting point as you envision potential solutions? Do you suspend disbelief and the laws of reality in order to define what you want? Or, do you ground yourself in the possible, stretching and twisting the boundaries to push your way into the new?
Positive vs negative
Painters add what they want to the canvas. No one else has placed a negative that they need to remove. They only have the positive to add and the risks of mistakes aren’t as severe as what the sculptor faces. Yes, there are times that they are frustrated by their own creation, and must remove the negative to reset. But, they begin from a place where they make the initial decisions about what belongs and recovery from errors is possible.
Traditional sculptors only remove the negative and they must fear the cost of a slip. They take elements away to reveal what they want. If a mistake is made, and too much is removed, they cannot add it back. The error is permanent and there is no recovery. For example, while there a number of theories around the missing arms of the Venus de Milo, we can all probably agree that simply gluing her arms back on would be an unacceptable act of creation.
Are you motivated more by the positive benefits and the potential of rewards, or by the fear of negative consequences or mistakes? Do you more often feel a pull or a push as the driving force behind your creativity? Do you find yourself saying, “This wonderful vision of the future must exist” or “This injustice cannot be allowed to continue”?
Pleasure vs pain
This gets to the heart of my story. Some of us seek to increase pleasure. We tend to emphasize the positive. When we create solutions we naturally talk about the joyous outcome it will provide. The language is about the pull and what you are drawn to. What you will gain. We think in terms of what can be added to the canvas of your life to make a pleasant vision come true.
On the flip side, some of us seek to eliminate pain. We tend to emphasize the reduction of the negative. When we create solutions we naturally talk about the bad things that they will eliminate. The language is about the push and what you are escaping. What you will leave behind. We think in terms of the unpleasant things that can be realistically removed from your life to reshape it into something more desirable.
Both are acts of artistic creation to being a specific outcome to life. A vision that exists in the artist’s mind. But, one is more focused on the destruction of “what is” to create would “could be.” The other act is more focused on the creation of what could be from a base of nonexistence.
In Tech startup and innovation conversations we sometimes ask,
“Are you creating a vitamin or a painkiller?”
What this means is: does your solution represent something that people aspire to be or have, or does it take away some friction, frustration, or pain they are experiencing? In some cases, it is a matter of semantics and marketing language. You can potentially view the new solution from both perspectives. But, in other cases, it only serves one of those purposes.
Does a course on Udacity help you gain knowledge and skills because you want to improve yourself (taking your brain vitamins)? Or, are you seeking new knowledge and skills that will enable you to escape a job that you hate (taking a job painkiller)?
Did eBay enable new transactions that never would have been possible before? Or, did eBay’s service reduce the pain and friction from existing models of transaction that were tedious, risky, and deeply flawed?
Both are probably true today for these services. But, what is the initial impetus that drives the team’s act of creation? What is the initial messaging that attracts customers to your innovation? Who are you serving and what are you delivering to them?
The power of perspective
I started writing this because I’ve learned something about myself through the process of being an entrepreneur and handling my own design, content creation, web development, and marketing.
I seem to start with the negative. I think about the pain and frustration people must be experiencing (that I also experienced) and how my solutions can remove that pain. I am a sculptor. I did it with my own life. I slowly but surely removed the things I didn’t want in my life to create the life I wanted. I started with a big block of potential with my decades of education and career experience, and only then did I start chipping away to focus myself on the new vision that I had. It’s no wonder I tend to think in painkiller language.
I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. I know that some in marketing love the painkiller approach. But, I think it is refreshing to flip things around and view it from the painter's perspective, and the language of the vitamin. How can I describe a world that pulls people toward something inspirational vs. pushing them away from something bad?
We all can benefit from flipping around our innate view of the world from time to time. Why? Because the people around you will not always share your way of seeing the world. If you’re trying to reach potential clients or customers with what you create, some may be drawn to it with an aspirational pull. Some may be pushed into it with an urge to escape.
Speaking both languages helps you connect the dots for everyone. Yes, a course on Udacity will help you become more. But, it will also help you experience less of a negative situation that you want to escape.
Even Walmart has language to this effect. If I’m in the pain of having little money, “low prices” help me address that pain. But, the vitamin language of “Saving people money so they can live better” will speak to a whole different audience.
My forging metaphor
The metaphor is quite intentional. My fondness for speaking of “forging your career and life” comes from a belief that we can reshape who we are to become what we want to be. I don’t see it as simply an additive or subtractive method.
But, our lives aren’t predetermined either. We aren’t granted a complete set of gifts to work with, to carve away some to reveal others. That is not all we are capable of becoming.
We do start with a natural base of capabilities and talents as genetic gifts. A few of those “gifts” may be seen as a curse as well. Whether we like it or not, they do exist.
But, we can add knowledge and skills, and reshape ourselves through experiences, practice, and hard work. We can play to our strengths. We can eliminate bad habits and manage our weaknesses. We can grow and evolve to reveal more potential.
I know that I used to think more like a sculptor. I used to think, “I am what I am, and there is only so much that can be done to reveal my potential.” But, life experiences have shown me otherwise.
We all need to have some of the sculptor and the painter inside us. Being able to see the world, potential, and acts of creation from both perspectives will give you the capabilities to succeed when others fail.
Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, a Great Dane, a chicken, and a stubborn old cat. He shares advice that helps you become an opportunity magnet, so the best things in life come to you! You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.