Leadership Insights: Interview With Matt Appling Author Of Life After Art

Matt Appling HeadshotIt’s my pleasure to introduce you to Matt Appling today. He’s the author of the newly released book Life After Art (This is an affiliate link. If you click and buy from it, I get a small commission. In fact, Life After Art released today! Matt shares his heart and how he feels leadership and art can intersect.

When you purchase Life After Art, Matt and his publisher have decided to give away three great resources to help the book sink in even more. You’ll receive the Life After Art deluxe e-book, the Life After Art Field Guide, and The Art of Storytelling! To receive the free bonuses, all you have to do is email your receipt to LifeAfterArtBook@gmail.com.

Matt has also been gracious enough to offer a copy of Life After Art to one lucky blog reader. Read on to discover how you can win a copy of the book.

Q1: Matt, would you please introduce yourself to my readers who may not know who you are? What are you doing and how did you get here?

I’m an art teacher, a pastor and a writer. I started my blog, The Church of No People four years ago, where I have written three times a week since then. I teach elementary art and high school art history, which inspired my first book, Life After Art. And I lead a house church. My wife, Cheri and I have two dogs. So, I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.

Q2: Art seems to have taken a back seat to other topics in school and in life. Rarely do you see art encouraged in the workplace. How can leaders encourage their staff to be more creative and to create art?

Art has some tough obstacles to overcome in the adult world, precisely because most adults left art and creativity behind in their childhoods. I think companies like Google have a great system where a portion of employee work time is undirected. It’s just “free time” where employees tinker and act creatively and independently. Some of that companies biggest ideas have started from that free creative work time. Maybe it starts with creating a culture that values creativity more than constant productivity.

Q3: Google has done a terrific job in fostering creativity. You mentioned the undirected work time. Do you have any suggestions on what an employer can do to ensure their staff has margin to have the “free” time to create?

I think it depends on the industry that you are in, but I think some broad rules apply. Pastors and ministry leaders have to discipline themselves to take a Sabbath that’s not a Sunday, and that’s a discipline that is long lost on most of us. We never stop! We never give our minds the creative margin to just enjoy and exist. I had a lightning bolt moment with Life After Art while walking my dog, not pouring over papers. Leaders have to ensure their workers are able to really, productively rest. And we all have to have the discipline to leave work at work, not bringing it home on our phones or laptops. Let our minds explore and absorb the world.

Inside the workplace, it’s the same principle of changing the culture from a culture of productivity to a culture of creativity. Creative people understand that inspiration doesn’t just hit between 9 and 5 or when a committee meeting occurs. So to demand that every moment of the work day be occupied with tasks may be sabotaging the creative flow of the workers. Give people time and space to let their minds work, even if their bodies aren’t apparently working.

Q4: You share in Life After Art how you make your students critique their own artwork. You state that this helps to fend off laziness. How can we apply this strategy as we’re leading those around us?

Self-critique keeps us humble, but it also keeps us sharp as we lead and work. No one is above critique, and there are no 100 percents awarded in life. Whether you’re leading a classroom of children or a giant corporation, it pays to end the day and replay the days events in your mind, taking note of what went well and what didn’t.

Q5: One of the points in your book is that we have the freedom to succeed or fail. There are some leaders that would disagree with this line of thinking. What would you say to them?

People who say failure is not an option, I believe do not have a realistic view of themselves or the world. The most successful people don’t learn how to avoid failure. They just learn how to deal with failure. If you want to stifle creative thinking, create a culture where failure is not an option. Then you’ll have a bunch of workers who put all their energies into not messing up, not attracting negative attention.

Q6: I agree that the failure is not an option is an unrealistic view of the world. How do you create a culture where failure is an option?

How do we create a culture where failure is an option? Tough one. It has to start with parents deciding to lighten up on their kids at little league when they miss a goal. It starts with teachers that show kids that failure is a normal, necessary part of learning. It starts with removing the artificial consequences from failure that make it so unappealing that no one will risk it.

Q7: Edwin Binney, the creator of Crayola, was mentioned as a creative giant in the book. This example was to show that creativity isn’t always what people think it is. Who else has been a non-traditional creative giant?

You’re right. I made Edwin Binney an example of a creative mind because the CEO of a chemical dye-turned crayon manufacturer doesn’t sound very creative. But creativity has a home in every life and vocation, because it’s how we are made.

Creative giants may not be obvious, but they are the people who are shaping our world, for better or for worse. I chose Binney because most of us don’t know that name. There are a million little creatives wandering around, inventing things, thinking differently, changing the way you and I live, though we will never know their names.

Q8: I like how you say there are a million little creatives wandering around. We may never know them by name but they’re doing something great for the world. I also believe there are little creatives affecting each and every one of us. Who has been a little creative in your life that has inspired you to create art?

When I think of creatives that inspired me, I honestly think about all my art teachers, toiling in anonymity in their classrooms. They put their heart and soul into their students, not because they were going to become famous artists or anything. Just because it was who they were.

Q9: In art, we’re often encouraged to color inside of the lines. As leaders, we often encourage our team to stay within certain boundaries. Is there a time to color outside of the lines or to cross the boundaries which have been set?

It depends on which lines we’re talking about, and you’re readers will just have to read the book to get the full context of what “coloring outside the lines” is all about. But I’ll say that as leaders, we have to be the ones to give permission to color outside the lines. As parents, we have to be the ones to encourage children to color outside some lines, while recognizing that other lines are permanent and may not be crossed.

Q10: After creating a work of art, we will step back and criticize the mistakes. I’ve done the same as a leader, second guessing my decisions. Is there a way to overcome the temptation to see the errors and embrace the art we’ve created?

I also highlighted Bob Ross, famed television painter on PBS as a creative giant. His mantra was “We don’t have mistakes here. Just happy accidents.” When we become consumed with our mistakes, then critique is no longer healthy. Nothing we create is ever going to be perfect. Even the biggest heroes of the world are flawed heroes. That’s what makes us human, and our work unique. Embracing what we’ve made for all of its flaws is part of the journey to becoming a fulfilled human being.

Q11: I love how you mentioned that everyone is a creator. It’s an inescapable truth down to the fact that we’re able to reproduce and create a child. Why do you think we forget this fact?

I don’t know exactly why we forget this, but I think it’s a symptom of our modern lifestyles, focused on paying the bills, keeping up with the Joneses, and achieving the “American dream.” That’s what we were told – implicitly or explicitly – that life was all about.

Q12: Do you think there is a way to overcome the desire to live the modern lifestyles that are so focused on things other than art? What can we do to remember we’re creators?

Rejecting the overwhelmingly prevalent modern lifestyle and mindset is an exceedingly difficult choice, and I say that as someone who finds himself too often trapped by it. It starts a little bit at a time, chipping away at some excess belief or possession, and it probably takes a different shape for each person. For me, blogging has provided a great platform for my thinking about the world to grow and evolve, because I’m consciously thinking about the opinions I take for granted and evaluating whether they actually make coherent sense. It takes a lot of self-awareness and critical thinking about the messages we receive from the world, rather than accepting them at face value. Above all, it’s a spiritual discipline.

Q13: Life After Art paints the picture that there’s something bigger than us. There’s a master creator who designed us and gave us life. How has God shown his artwork to you?

When we create something, I think we are more connected the mind of our Creator. Creating is the first thing God does in the story of Genesis. And while I can marvel at all of the beauty in nature, I think humans are some of God’s most interesting creations – how He can take a bit of dust and form us into the people He wants us to be.

Q14: Thank you for your time today Matt. Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

Life After Art has been a labor of love for me, and I sincerely hope it encourages people to be better creators, better leaders, better…well, human beings! So many people are afraid they missed their calling in life. Well, when we get back in touch with creativity, we are re-learning what we were made to do with our lives.

Life After Art book cover by Matt ApplingI’d like to give a huge thank you to Matt for opening up and sharing his leadership ideas with you. He’s given us a lot to think about.

If you think Life After Art would be a great book for you, you can pick it up at Amazon by clicking here.

Now, it’s what you’ve all been waiting for. The giveaway. As Matt and Moody Publishers have been so kind as to provide an extra copy, I’d love to get it into one of your hands. I’ll choose a winner on Thursday, April 4th, 2013 and announce the winner on the blog on April 5th, 2013.

What do you have to do to enter the contest? Two things:

First: Share this post via a tweet. Or click HERE to share. Be sure to tag me in the tweet (@JosephLalonde).

Second: Leave a comment in the comment section answering the following question –

Question: How has art influenced you in your life and leadership? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • This is a very informative post, Joseph. There were things in it that I hadn’t considered while reading the book or in getting to know more about Matt over the past week. Based on your question #2, I think that a potential problem in stifling creativity is not taking the time to be still or to be silent. With the possibility of information overload and constantly keeping up with social media, it’s a bit difficult to freely allow creativity to flow. By taking a true sabbath often I think would help. This is just not for leaders to do, but for everyone.

    • Thanks Thomas. Matt provided some great content, didn’t he? You’ve got great thoughts on why the lack of focus on the arts is prevalent. We don’t have the time or margin in our days to step back. How are you tackling this issue?

      • I’m far from tackling the issue, that’s for sure! But I’ve been thinking generally about shutting down the “noise” for a period of time just to focus on letting the creative side of me start to emerge, however that will look like.

        • That’s cool Thomas. Shutting out the noise and focusing on creativity is a great start. What would you be doing during the shut down?

  • Art has actually played a major part in my leadership development. I love creating things – whether it’s digital art, photos, cooking, DIY stuff – it’s all exciting to me. But art doesn’t stop at those things.

    I also see it as taking initiative to host events and organize people – an act of creation that separates leaders from followers. It takes effort to create events and make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be or that there’s enough food for everyone (I’m talking from experience this past weekend hosting a potluck before the Easter vigil service I went to) but I know it has developed me as a leader more than if I just showed up to the potluck.

    Thanks Joe and Matt for these great insights. I’m so thankful to our Creator for giving us the ability to make art and pray that I can be one of those million little creatives!

    • Intuitive thoughts Jeff. You’re correct that leaders are creating when they’re putting together teams and organizing events. It takes creative insights to do such things.

    • Very well said, Jeff! I hope you find the book encouraging as you continue to lead by creating.

  • It’s taken awhile to see what I do as art but after hearing from guys like Matt and especially Seth Godin. But now I do and I really enjoy it 🙂

    • That’s the great thing about life. Everything is art if we do it well. Take your speaking for example. It’s an art that many people are afraid to master or even attempt (Like me!). But you’ve made it an art form and keep improving all the time.

    • That’s awesome Kimanzi! And I’m humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as Seth Godin. 🙂 That really is what the book is about – the “art” of life itself.

  • Great interview. I really like the part about teaching our kids to fail…that’s it’s normal and part of life. We need to learn to fail so we can learn to “LEARN”.

    • That was a great answer, huh? Failure’s a part of life and something that we all have to deal with. It’s time we teach our kids that. If you’re looking for other great resources that teach kids about failure, check out Tim Elmore. He was just interviewed by the guys at Catalyst and they talked about everyone being a “winner”.

    • You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to teach kids who aren’t willing to fail. I spend quite a bit of time in the book on my own tendency toward procrastination, because it’s such a prevalent problem.

      • I can’t imagine. It’s hard to believe our society shies away from such learning opportunities in our kids. How can we expect to grow if we are scared of challenges and set backs?

  • Great interview! Art really can allow us to tap into our creative side which is an important thing to do.

    • Thanks Dan. Matt was a gracious interviewee and took the questions like a champ. How are you tapping into your creative side as a leader?

  • Great Interview. I loved hearing about failing. Failing is often the critical element for success. At times it hard to hear failing is okay. It seems that the stakes keep getting higher each year. Companies want more sales, greater revenue, and more market share. I know I want to earn more money. After awhile failure is hard to even consider because it may mean starting over, but if you don’t fail often you may be starting over anyways.

    • Thanks Brandon. That’s so true. Either way you may be starting over. But if you fail you’re able to learn from the mistakes and come back stronger.

    • That’s the truth. For the longest time, I was petrified of failure, and I still struggle with my concept of it. I hope the book helps you, Brandon!

  • Viewing work as art has been THE big change in my thinking – started by folks like Seth Godin and re-enforced by folks like Matt in this interview. If we create art, then we can’t be replaced. Once I realized an Excel spreadsheet was really art, I was hooked! Enjoyed the interview and conversation today…thanks!

    • Glad you’re able to find art in an Excel spreadsheet. I still have trouble wrapping my head around them. What creative ways have you used to create Excel spreadsheets?

    • That’s incredible, Tom! Maybe you’re a “mixed media” artist with spreadsheets. Either way, I hope you find the book encouraging to you.

  • I have learned to call myself creative again only in the last few years. What a difference it makes to me personally, as well as in how I am leading my boys, who are both incredibly artistic. I want to continue to encourage them to embrace that and never lose it.

    • Awesome Tammy. Glad you’ve picked up that mantle again and have learned you are creative.

  • It was the Heath brothers in “Made to Stick” that helped me first make the connection between art and how they can make ideas stick.

    • Amy, have you read their new book Decisive? It’s a great read.

      • Not yet … but I want to get it! I love anything by them or Malcolm Gladwell. Glad to hear it’s a good read!

  • Like many others, I didn’t always see my work as art. Seth Godin and Steven Pressfield, among others, have helped me to accept it. Thanks for the great interview. This book will definitely go on my reading list!

    • Aren’t you glad there are those that are showing us our work is art regardless of what we think, Karen? It helps us move forward and do the work because we’re creating something.

  • I think my parents did a great job from the very beginning introducing my brothers and I to the world of art. Whether it was art class, going to art museums, looking at art books, or participating in the fine arts, I was around art more than I realized growing up. I think this gave me an appreciation for art as I grew older. Now, I get the opportunity to do the same for my kids.

    • Awesome Jon. Many parents are unwilling to do that these days. Your parents gave you guys a great head start! Glad to see you’re passing it onto your kids. What has this appreciation of the arts done for you as you’ve gotten older?

      • It’s opened my mind to broader opportunities (like through blogging) than I probably would normally have been with my math/science focused mind. It has also opened by eyes to opportunities to spend time with my wife and kids. We love to take in art together.

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  • Art has been the driver for my life. When I was younger I went through some medical problems and had to stop playing sports, which was my world. It was after those events that I found web design and got immersed in the world of creating. However, it’s been in recent months that I’ve found how much art is all around us and how anything can really be art, given the creator of it puts the right elements into it.

    Matt said something that really caught me. “Give people time and space to let their minds work, even if their bodies aren’t apparently working.” I love that quote. To me that makes a ton of sense because we always so engulfed in being more productive that we forget to have downtime. That’s why our best ideas come in the shower or right before we go to sleep, it’s the only time we let our brains have room to breathe.

    Lastly, creating is something I want to instill in my kids. I never want them to think they can’t do something because of the boundaries of this world. I’m a big dreamer and often get caught up in the possibilities of how awesome something I’ve created will be. It’s a problem to some extent but I’d rather be this way than stuck in the mindset that we can’t make progress or change anything. My kids will hopefully get the same mindset I have about changing the world. It only takes 1 person at a time to make that happen so we can all have our little part.

    Thanks for sharing, will definitely be checking out Matt’s book and blog!

    • Loved hearing your thoughts and what you gleaned from the post Jared. From what I know of you, you’re a huge creative and it’s amazing to see what you can do. If you can instill a small part of your creativity in your kids and encourage them to live it out, they’ll be amazing.

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