During a recent art class, the teacher encouraged the students to “draw the light.” With black sheets of paper and a few xeroxed black and white images fished out of a pile to serve as models, we tried seeing the opposite of what we have been trained to expect. Instead of trying to represent the external reality of someone or something in terms of its casing or flesh and bones, we were to draw the light reflected from the surfaces. This was a fascinating exercise for those of us who hadn’t tried it before.
In drawing the light, at least for the first time, you can almost feel a different part of your brain working, and see an image emerge on paper that you know you didn’t draw in a standard way. Out of total blackness and emptiness emerges a figure, an expression, and new possibilities previously unimagined.
While many an effort doesn’t work out exactly as originally hoped, sometimes the outcome is surprising simply because we didn’t expect it. Drawing in search of such surprises seems to have parallels in methods for thinking strategically. If we applied similar counterintuitive reasoning strategies to some of the world’s greatest problems–drawing the light instead of (or at least in addition to) reacting always to the darkness we can see more readily–what could be the result? How much of what happens is driven by our expectations, as low as they might be for some issues?
Art can help reset the mind to realize that by learning to see differently we can open up different possibilities. Indeed, could persisting in traditional ways of seeing actually be dangerous in a world so obviously transformed and transforming by the hour, if not the minute? Might we more inevitably face more dangerous surprises by persisting in unproductive ways of thinking (or working, or organizing, measuring, or valuing)? Alternatively, by embracing more surprising thinking ourselves, might there be a way to gain strategic advantage? Isn’t this already recognized in business as identifying ‘niche’ opportunities or fostering innovation? In any case, by trying to draw an image again and again, it is possible to see how much went unseen before.
It seems that artists, including children, have much to teach us about different ways of seeing the modern world. Without fully exploring these “adjacent possible” spaces, to use the phrase coined by Stephen Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From, how many opportunities do we miss? The recent lesson in drawing the light was a powerful reminder of how much innate capacity remains untapped in most traditional approaches to challenges!