What they don’t teach you at art school: how to be creative and save the world

I went to at least three different universities and conservatories in different places around the world to study music, and have had continuous music teachers since I was eight years old (that’s 33 years!), in both violin and classical singing.

At all those music schools a simply huge amount of energy went into learning the craft and technique of music performance.

The art of it, the musicianship and expression, was less important than grounding the technique. This makes sense until technique takes over and becomes the expression, the end game.

And least important of all were the reasons for being a musician in the first place, the role music and art could play in personal development, and developing creative capabilities that could actually contribute to a better world.

These were simply never talked about.



Yesterday I listened to a young violinist, just 25 years old, whose technique was brilliant, strong, and more than capable to play the virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra. And yet despite the brilliance, his playing had no character, substance, or warmth.

It sounded like he had nothing to say.

It was like his motive for putting such enormous dedication into his playing was unclear to him. It certainly was unclear to me. I would hazard a guess that his motives are influenced by the desire to be recognized as brilliant, amazing, special.

This is what we were all trained to be like.


A world that values brilliance and celebrity like it does, is one that encourages and enforces narcissism in our artists.


This is also engendered by what we don’t value, and therefore don’t teach in a conventional approach to training artists: the development of the person who is the artist.


Photo by Jallen Fosati

I remember asking one of my colleagues: why do you play music? What motivates you? After a fair bit of thinking, the best he could come up with was, “I like it”. I found that to be an unsatisfying answer; don’t you?



When I developed a chronic injury which brought my music career to a crashing halt, I found myself asking big life questions as one does when in the throes of a crisis: who am I actually? Who do I want to be?


I had no idea.


The answers came slowly over time and in retrospect only after I grieved the loss of not only my violin career but also my identity to date.


Art can be a healing force, when not used as a trumpet of narcissistic motives. Because being creative is a place and a practice of self-discovery and world discovery, of the deepening of sensitivity to that which makes us more human, more whole.


This I only discovered much later.

But I’m being vague; the ability to be creative is a human birth-right, available to all and irrespective of talent. The practice of being creative throws you back on yourself (notice I say “being creative”, not being technical), and teaches you about the medium in which you are creating. Creativity also follows a path of archetypes, the knowledge of which will substantially improve the outcomes of what you are trying to create.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean when you are trying to create only art. I mean, when you are trying to create anything.

Whether it’s a new life direction, a closer marriage, completing a project with challenging teammates, strategic leadership, or starting and growing a new business, it doesn’t really matter what it is you are creating; you are working with a medium — that medium is likely to be people — and you are trying to create something.


This kind of creativity — with people as your medium and applied to anything — requires a set of capabilities and know how that most certainly isn’t taught in art schools.

But I believe it can be learned by anyone.

I would go so far as to say that without this kind of meta-creativity, our future as a species is looking pretty grim.



What do I mean by calling people a “creative medium”?!?

I only mean it as an analogy: just as you would learn all about the tendencies and properties of paint or clay if you wish to achieve a good outcome with them, so must you understand the nature and tendencies of people if you are trying to create something with and for them.

And for those of you out there trying to save the world, this is especially true.

Photo by Damien Checoury of the Paris protests, May 1st, 2017

To give an example and to drive home why this is important, I want to introduce to you a friend of mine, Manish Jain, who writes this article about the cultural and ecological destruction that “education” in India creates. Education is something we would usually consider a great thing, right? Isn’t education the key to pulling countless so-called developing world folks out of poverty? Manish’s institute, Shikshantar, challenges that belief by showing how the medium (of people, in reality) can teach us otherwise.



I want to give you something concrete though. The best way to learn into the medium of people is to begin a practice of 1st person science: the phenomenology of you.

You are, after all, part of the medium. And I’ll let you in on a secret: your personal inner life is a fractal of the collective inner life. This means, as you objectively and systematically get to know your own inner terrain, you get to know an aspect of the inner terrain at large.

If you want to help change the world, you will see the huge benefit of that kind of knowledge.

I truly hope you invest heavily in getting to know your own inner terrain, that aspect of the creative medium as it expresses itself in you.

If you do, then you will undoubtedly change; you will awaken to other realities of which you were previously unaware, and you will develop new organs of perception that will help you see into social realms that were previously invisible to you.

And finally, you will begin to see the subtleties and devilish details of what hinders and harms those invisible fields and connections (implicit bias for example), and what is truly regenerative (empathy, interest), what is truly the creation of new and healthier social realities. Let’s live, love, and work informed by this kind of wisdom!

Because nothing else will save us from ourselves and our continued destruction of our world and each other.

I truly believe that this reframe of understanding each other better through the lens of creativity is the antidote for our hard times and for the coming future.

Art schools could reevaluate their value proposition by shifting their mindsets away from producing wannabe stars to producing significant contributors to society! How ‘bout it, art schools?

And besides, this would be way more fun and meaningful don’t you think?


  1. Jordan Walker on September 28, 2017 at 12:30 am

    Well done!

    • Louisa Barnum on September 28, 2017 at 8:16 am

      Thank you, Jordan! We love getting comments and encouragement 🙂

  2. Donna hogeland stusser on September 28, 2017 at 6:20 am

    This is a very helpful message which calls me to both my desire to go into my inner
    World and my outer immediate community challenges both .
    Thank you so much Jeff and Louisa for your brilliance and compassion.

    • Louisa Barnum on September 28, 2017 at 8:15 am

      Thank you, Donna! Yes, paying more attention to both the inner and outer, you are right on there. Your outer challenges can often be a reflection, or a picture, of your inner world. And if that is true in your case, then that can be helpful as a place to inquire: what is going on in me that I am having these experiences? Thank you for your comment! Warmly, Louisa

  3. Lena on September 28, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Thank you! This internal challenge gets brought up for me when money is involved with the exchange of creative medium. When my arts come from deep within, like from passion and excitement and curiosity, time and money are not the driving force. It feels so good and true. And my works quality is so much greater. I’ve found it to be a very important thing for me to try and cultivate that mind and heart set for my life. It’s going to take a lot of practice because the other is so encouraged in our current society.
    Thanks for writing your piece!

    • Louisa Barnum on September 28, 2017 at 8:07 am

      Thank you L! Yes, the exchange of money for creative effort has a dilemma built into it as you pointed out: when you have to create for money you are no longer as free, and freedom is very important to creativity. The need to make money and compete is really not conducive to the sensitivity and receptiveness you are trying to cultivate – and that you need in order to get into flow with your work – when you are in that creative activity. It creates a conflict. There are ways, though, that you can build a bit more of a membrane between your art practice and making money. It takes some out of the box business design thinking but it can be done! Thanks again for the comment!

  4. Katy on September 28, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Such a thought provoking and rich piece, thank you! My experience has mirrored this in some ways–trained as a scientist with a focus on “saving the world” but the lack of mentorship and training in creativity has been limiting. Too much function and not enough form! More marriage of art and science, please.

    • Louisa Barnum on September 28, 2017 at 12:23 pm

      Thank you, Katy – indeed a marriage of science and art to bring the mysterious and inexplicable – in other words let the phenomena speak! – back into play. I know you will relate to this because of your Goethean science background… Science as art goes both ways because we also need that rigor and discipline that science has developed to such a wonderful degree in our study of the phenomenon of the medium in which we are creating. Whether that be the medium of business building, inner development, relationship healing, or art… It’s a 1st person science where you are both the object and the subject. Difficult but possible! Thanks again for your stimulating comment!

  5. Pete Buotte in TX on September 30, 2017 at 9:30 pm

    Such a good, heart-felt article. I too saw the lack of empathy in the art schools I attended in Maine, NYC and Paris. There was some technical direction, a lot of laissez-faire lack of direction, and little to no focus on trusting intuition and emotion as the strongest source of creativity. It arrived organically thru much trial and error. Probably the most eye-opening comment from a fellow MFA student was ‘Don’t think the line, feel it’. That really pushed me from technicality and correctness into the world of empathy- first for me, and then the work. Now I can vacillate and depend on both when necessary !

    • Louisa Barnum on October 3, 2017 at 2:16 pm

      Thank you, Pete!! I can see that empathy holds a world of implication and meaning for you personally and in your art which would be interesting to unpack sometime and learn more about. You came to that through trial and error and thank goodness you did! And yes, depending on both technique and empathy is a nice way to put it. I do think that if we only see emotion and intuition as the strongest sources of creativity, then there is little hope to bring the rigor of science into our study of creativity. I think we need a more precise vernacular to describe the phenomena. The source of creativity… well that is another very interesting subject to unpack sometime… Thanks again Pete!

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