Simon Sinek on Why Small Business Owners Should Study the Arts

In Chapter 14 of 20 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview with host Erik Michielsen, author and leadership expert Simon Sinek shares why small business owners benefit by studying the arts. He finds learning different problem-solving approaches outside one's core discipline opens the mind, in particular the subconscious mind, to consider new ways of approaching a situation. Sinek offers artistic expression around line, color, form, posture, and other ways of expression beyond language that can benefit a small business owner. Simon Sinek is a trained ethnographer who applies his curiosity around why people do what they do to teach leaders and companies how to inspire people. He is the author of "Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action". Sinek holds a BA degree in cultural anthropology from Brandeis University.


Erik Michielsen: Why should small business owners get involved in the arts?

Simon Sinek: I think that more businessmen should learn about the arts. I think a small business, especially, should study the arts. I remember a long time ago when I had a job, I had a small team, and I called a group meeting and they didn’t know what it was for. And they all showed up with their pencils and their notebooks and I said, “Okay, we’re going to a little offsite” and I took them to a gallery.

And the reason I think the arts are valuable, is, again it’s the way the brain works, you know? Have you ever noticed that you have all your good ideas, not when you’re sitting in a brainstorming session? Because your rational brain can only access about two feet of information around you. Where your subconscious brain can access the equivalent of ninety – something like, what is it? – 11 acres of information around you. In other words, every lesson or every experience you’ve had gets put in there. And it controls behavior and decision-making, just not language. And so that’s why we say, “this is a gut decision, it just feels right.”

Or it’s also the reason these decisions happen in bed, in the shower, when you go for a run, but not in the brainstorming session. The problems have been posed, the questions have been posed, but then your brain continues to think about them, it continues to try and solve them – accessing all this other information, just not rationally, and so [Snaps Fingers] these ideas seem to show up from nowhere. It’s like, do you ever leave the house, and you feel like you’ve forgotten something? And you’re like “what did I forget? What did I forget?” It’s not rational it’s that subconscious, and you leave the house and you’re like [snaps] my sunglasses. And it’s never wrong! When you get the feeling that you’ve forgotten something, it’s never – in other words, your subconscious knows.

And so the more you can do to fill that subconscious with information that has nothing to do with anything, apparently, the more I think it benefits you in the times when you need to actually apply that information. And I think the greatest opportunity for that is in the arts, because you’re not thinking about it, you’re not like “well I’ll read this book and it’s somewhat related to my work.”

No, go read things that have nothing to do with your work. Go watch performances, go see artists, go see the way other people solve problems in a way that have nothing to do with you. And you will not see the connection, and there is none. Or is there? There are things that you can learn outside of your own discipline that will significantly contribute to the problems you’re solving at work. You only know what you know, you don’t know what you don’t know, but more importantly, the arts seek to understand our world in a way that the rest of us don’t, you know, it accesses a language that the rest of us don’t use. You and I are communicating with English, right? This is the language we’re using. You talk to a painter or dancer, you know? They may lack the facility that you and I have right now. In other words, they’re uncomfortable speaking. But a great painter has the ability to express themselves in color, and in line or in form, that we can learn a lot about them through this new language. Or a dancer has the ability to you know, to present themselves and use their body as this, as language to share what they feel, right? And some of us have the ability to do it in language, but some of us don’t.

And I think to engage with the arts, to understand a new way of expression or understanding the world significantly enhances your ability to solve problems back at work. I’m a firm believer that all small business, you know, all the owners – if not everybody – should go take classes. Go take a glass blowing class, go take a ceramics class, go take a ballet class, go take a piano lesson, go take a painting class, it doesn’t matter. Drawing … whatever tickles your fancy. Because you will learn things in those classes that will significantly contribute to your understanding of how you present to the world. I took a ballet class with a couple of friends of mine, and I learned about presence and posture, and I can tell you, as a speaker, guess where I found that? Not from a speakers’ bureau, you know?