“Who here can draw?” artist Erik Wahl asked the audience gathered at the opening session of NAILBA 35 after dazzling the crowd by painting a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in under four minutes to the Nickelback song “If Everyone Cared.”
A few hands tentatively went up amid nervous laughter.
“I too am a numbers guy, so I’d say it’s a little less than half of you,” he guessed after surveying the audience. Wahl said if he asked a group of high schoolers the same question, about 80 percent might indicate they can draw.
“But if I go to a preschool, any preschool, and ask who here can draw, what kind of response am I going to get? One hundred percent of kids, sometimes even our own children, are practically bursting at the seams, just dying to show you their creative energy.”
But along the way, that creative energy gets depleted, or sometimes crushed by well-meaning adults and a society laser focused on rules, data and analytics, he said.
For Wahl, his love of art was crushed by a teacher telling him somewhere along the way in elementary school that he really wasn’t very good at it. Because he didn’t color inside the lines. Because he didn’t follow directions. Because he didn’t color the red apple red or the orange pumpkin orange. And so he put down his crayons, and didn’t pick them up again for 20 years.
Instead, he focused on tasks that produced measurable results. Getting good grades by memorizing and regurgitating facts, and going on to build a successful business as a young adult.
Then came the dot-com bust, and all he had worked for was suddenly gone.
“It made me physically nauseous because everything that had been drilled into me about what it meant to be successful was taken away,” said Wahl. “What disgusts me most is I allowed my self-worth to be directly tied to my net worth.”
At the suggestion of a friend, and as a form of therapy to re-energize himself, Wahl turned back to his childhood love of painting. (Luckily for all of us who have had the opportunity to witness his art, travel was out of the question at the time because he was broke.) It was then that the right-brain creativity that had been trapped by logic began to creep open, he said.
Why is all this important to the insurance industry? Because, said Wahl, it’s important to access and balance the left-brain analytics and data that you use in business with the creativity that often lives in the vulnerable and often-ignored right side of your brain. It’s why Wahl insists participants take notes in crayon during business meetings to inspire creativity and thinking about problems in new way.
See also: The 20 most creative people in insurance
(As an aside, Wahl cited a study that says Crayola crayons are one of the 20 most recognizable smells for American adults, and the smell of crayons can actually help reduce blood pressure. So if the DOL fiduciary rule has got you a little stressed out, he said, take a whiff of some crayons.)
The audience at Erik Wahl’s presentation at NAILBA 35 witnessed the artist create these three paintings, each of which took him about 3 minutes to make.
Creativity, said Wahl, is a learned skill exactly like reading, writing or arithmetic, but because all facets of our industrial factory education system rewards only analytical, logical, metric-driven practical skills, creativity is atrophied by the time we become adults. And that creativity is one of the most important tools we have to navigate ambiguity and master complexity, he said.
“It’s through these activities like drawing, traveling and experiencing diversity, experiencing different cultures, even different product sectors that we are able to tap in to that beginner’s space of our mind, because it’s only through tapping into that curious beginner’s creativity in your mind that you are going to be able to come up with new and different ideas that your competitors never even thought possible and your own valued customers didn’t yet know that they needed.”
Tapping into that creativity, though, requires breaking out of our comfort zones, because, as Wahl noted, comfort and growth cannot coexist. Often we are held back by anxiety, worry and fear (which Wahl said is simply an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real).
We learned to walk as babies by trying, falling and trying again, but by adulthood we are conditioned not to take risks, he said.
“We are almost naturally resistant to venturing out into that uncharted vulnerable, risk-taking, problem-solving space, but it’s not our fault,” said Wahl. “We were all taught, trained and disciplined to become logical from the time we entered school. We were taught to take all of our wonderful, cool, curious, multidimensional ideas and solutions and then trained to narrow them down to come up with just one standardized response.
“As adults we are taught to become increasingly risk averse, increasingly operationally efficient and increasingly busy,” Wahl continued. “It’s created a paradox where we talk about differentiating from the competition, where we talk about embracing disruptive strategies, we talk about innovation and creativity, but when it comes time to writing a check or making a decision, we almost always revert back to what has historical precedent, what’s been proven by the metrics or the data.”
For the life insurance industry, the challenge is to look for ways to humanize your business and brand and reprogram your thinking to change how you perceive challenges and opportunities and ways to build back in an emotional connection that’s truly going to drive future customer loyalty, said Wahl.
“Life insurance is one of those products that is an emotional product,” he said. “Yes it’s got metrics and rules and regulations behind it that need to be accounted for and will be accounted for but it is at the nexus of where our life intersects with our money. It is at the nexus of where your valued clients’ life intersects with their money. And that is an emotional experience. To discount or discredit the emotional experience that is discounts the potential you have to connect with them in a truly authentic and human way.”
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