Originally published on Forbes.com
The actor Steve Carell recently ran into an old colleague of his from Chicago’s Second City improv theater company. They reminisced about old times for a few minutes. Before they parted, Carell said empathically, “I’m really sorry it didn’t work out for you.” He was talking to Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter.
We rarely anticipate that when people’s artistic careers don’t pan out, they will become successful in business. But former actors, artists and musicians populate boardrooms across the country. And they are touting the benefits of their artistic training.
Take Peter Carrara, drummer for the almost-famous band The Darrens. Currently he is a managing director of technology and operations for the Royal Bank of Canada, a role in which he oversees 400 people in the United States, Asia and the UK. According to Carrara, his experience as a drummer fueled his success in business, especially in the field of Information Technology. “The infrastructure is the backbone of technology in a company—the network, the servers, the data rooms, the data centers—and a drummer is the backbone of a band,” he told me. Carrara is also the co-founder of Wall Street Rocks, which brings financial executives together to perform to raise funds for veteran’s charities such as the Wounded Warrior Project, Operation Finally Home and ReserveAid.
When Carrara was coming up as a drummer, he practiced every day. At his first Wall Street job working the night shift at Salomon Brothers, he applied that same rigor and discipline to learn his new business. He was delivering reports off the computers all night. He didn’t know what Unix was or even what a workstation was. But he taught himself Unix, just as he had taught himself the drums. By the time he left the company (which had been absorbed by Travelers and then Citigroup), he was managing 700 people. Any musician who is good enough to perform on a stage in front of people has spent hundreds or even thousands of hours playing scales, practicing and otherwise honing his or her craft. That discipline bodes well in the business world.
Farmer David Cleverdon runs his farm, Kinnikinnick Farm, like a musical ensemble. Sitting on more than 100 acres close to the Illinois-Wisconsin border, Cleverdon’s farm produces vegetables for Chicago’s top restaurants. Back in the early 1970s, Cleverdon was the chief field organizer of Dan Walker’s campaign to become governor of Illinois. He was in charge of all field operations—knocking on doors, putting up signs, overseeing the volunteers. Cleverdon’s mentor, Victor de Grazia, was Walker’s campaign manager and eventual deputy governor. It turned out he was also a musician. When Cleverdon read a book about blues ensembles, he understood why their campaign had been so successful. He now gives all of his farm employees a copy of the book Stomping the Blues by Albert Murray.
The trick is disciplined improvisation. De Grazia ran campaign strategy meetings like a band leader. He would lay down a direction for the group as if he were laying down a melody and then he let them riff: take the idea and turn it inside out, play it backwards or upside down, look for a bridge from one idea to the next. In that disciplined way, the group moved beyond where he had started. “It wasn’t consensus building. It was everybody adding something,” recalled Cleverdon. “He would orchestrate the whole thing in a very indirect way and by the time it was over and you went back you’d realize everybody had a chance to talk. But not just have their say; everybody had a chance to solo, to really add something new. He would say, ‘Great idea,’ or, ‘That’s good,’ or he’d say, ‘That’s bullshit.’ So he would define and refine the boundaries that we were operating in. There were some very great PR people, there were some very good organizers, there were some very good money people, and there were some very good policy people. And when you put it all together it was electric.” Nowadays, Cleverdon encourages the same kind of disciplined improvisation among the employees on his farm.
According to Craig M. Cortello, author of Everything We Needed to Know About Business We Learned Playing Music, a career in the performing arts is great preparation for a career in business. You learn to “step up to the mic” with confidence. You learn to take risks by doing jam sessions. You learn to engage your audiences by paying attention to how they respond to you. So many people are crippled by the thought of presenting their ideas to others, but once you’ve performed on a stage, you are a more confident public speaker.
Another benefit is the ability to put yourself on the line despite the possibility of rejection. Genevieve Thiers is an opera singer and founder of Sittercity.com. She told Cortello that her singing career helped her deal with early rejections of her business plan by investors. “Your voice is inextricably linked to you,” she told him. “You end up with skin so thick that nothing scares you. You’ll just walk up to anyone or start anything or make any phone call or go in front of anybody because you’ve got that strength behind you. You’ve been through the wash.”
Ultimately, the greatest contribution of a career in the arts may be in the mandate for artists to find their unique voice and express it. As an artist, you have to differentiate yourself from others. Doing well in business requires the same thing. To stand out, you need to put yourself on the line and express yourself with confidence and passion.