Three things the arts has taught me about the corporate world

Working in both the arts and the corporate world is an interesting dichotomy. 

As someone who belongs in both worlds, I often juggle two selves, playing games with different rules. The stark differences and surprising parallels make life very interesting sometimes.

There are times when I crave a break from the corporate routine and take solace in the arts. And there are times when I take refuge from the intensity of the arts in the dependable familiarity of the office.

I’ve tried to learn lessons from the arts and apply them to the corporate world, and vice versa. And there are three key learnings that stand out.

It isn’t money that gives you pride in your work.

Remarkably, in the arts people willingly give their time for free to something that is, really, an actual job.

I’ve worked on many theatre projects with people who turned up and contributed for nothing in return, except perhaps a few new contacts (myself included). It might be a script reading, a day-long workshop or even a full production including a month’s rehearsal in advance. And, as self-employed freelancers, they would also miss paid work for it. 

It’s a very humbling scenario, and difficult to navigate. It requires immense goodwill and careful boundaries. I’m always impressed with the professional pride people bring to an unpaid project.

But it’s always in the back of my mind. How far can you push someone who isn’t being paid? How much can you ask them to give? It’s even harder when they aren’t delivering what you’d like them to. Sitting down an unpaid actor to tell them they need to pull their socks up is a tough call.

Ideally, of course, everyone is paid properly for their work. I now only work on fully paid projects (where everyone gets a decent wage, not just me). But like anyone starting out I did my share of unpaid work and I accepted it cheerfully.

In the corporate world, you’re pushed and tested and asked to do things you don’t want to do all the time. But when there’s a value on your time, a salary or hourly rate, there’s an internal assessment of your worth. Is this task beneath me? Is this responsibility too much for my pay grade? When times get tough I often hear, “I’m not paid enough to worry about that,” and similar pretexts.

I’m guilty of thinking or saying it myself. And when I do, I have to remind myself, “It’s your job and you’re lucky you’re being paid to do it.” I compare it with how hard people have worked for me on theatre projects for nothing, with a quiet grace and dedication. 

And the comparison, unfortunately, highlights there’s often a lack of appreciation for the currency of goodwill in the corporate world.  

It really isn’t money that gives you pride in your work. 

Keep learning the lessons from every project.

Working in the arts is essentially a cycle of short-term projects. Even people with secure jobs at venues experience the sense of regular change; new productions and new faces coming and going all the time. 

A theatre project can be an incredibly intense experience. You bond swiftly and deeply with the team, sharing huge amounts of time and riding a rollercoaster of emotions together. And then, it’s all gone. The final show comes and goes, the set is (literally) ripped apart, everyone gets drunk one last time, writes lovely cards and then goes their separate ways.

It’s often six months later that I can properly reflect on the project; what I did well, what I would have done differently. Was it a good or bad experience overall? I try to look back and learn the lessons. An intense, short term experience encourages that.

But in the corporate world – not so much. Yes, you’ll work on projects and assess the various ‘lessons learned’ in a rather officious way. You’ll have regular performance reviews with your manager to reflect on your progress. But you never fully step back. Never have the same space to reflect. Only when you’ve left a company and experienced that final full stop can you really look back on what went down (and decide who you’re blocking on Facebook).

Interestingly, the swift intensity of relationships in the arts has taught me to be more cautious and reserved in the corporate world, where I take my time getting to know people. 

Or not. Boundaries are very healthy when you see the same faces for nearly three hundred days a year. And unhelpful when you have six weeks to pull off something ridiculous together in a theatre.

Don’t let an obsession with the end result ruin the product.

In the corporate world, a project or product will have a clear aim and measurable KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). The arts still maintain a joyful sense of anarchy when it comes to anything ‘businessy’. At least at grassroots level. Any serious attempts to set tangible targets and monitor your progress against them would be met with looks of confusion and; “You’re killing the vibe.

In the arts, we’re doing it because we’re doing it. Much like climbers on Everest, who repeat the famous words of George Mallory, “Because it’s there,” to justify their dance with death on the mountain.

There’s an unspoken understanding that creativity needs no justification. The closest to a concrete KPI I’ve ever heard on a theatre production is; “Let’s not lose money on this one.”

I’m being a little glib, of course. Naturally, professional venues want to make money and have revenue targets alongside an editorial strategy. But on the whole, the product is allowed to come first, and it’s treated with reverence. I think the corporate world from time to time could take a leaf out of that book. I’ve sat in endless meetings agonising over the projected Y and the profitability of Z.

In my arts experience, it’s always been much simpler. We work on the basis that a good show will produce good results. And who’s to say that’s wrong? Then again, if I invested £10k in a theatre production I’d want to know there was a clear plan in place to return my dosh afterwards.  

But I just can’t imagine asking a theatre director for an update on our project’s ‘Key Performance Indicators’.

They’d probably direct my attention to the fact that our lead actor doesn’t know their lines yet. 

Bigger things to worry about.