I believe in listening to the clay.
When I was a young girl, my father would drop me off at art class every Saturday morning. Classes were held in the basement of an old mansion that had been converted into an art school. I loved that basement. I’d wash my paintbrushes and watch a rainbow of colors drip and slide down the drain. To this day, the smell of a musty sponge brings me right back to that beloved studio.
I was determined that at some point my own children would take Saturday art classes a generation—and halfway across the country—from my own childhood. I cherished these mornings, sitting next to my children, watching them turn clay into dragons and bears. If the glaze didn’t turn out like we thought, our wise teacher would tell us with glee that our unexpected colors were “gifts from the kiln.”
She was encouraging us not to judge our work—and ourselves—so harshly but to be free to embrace unexpected outcomes. What a liberating antidote to my corporate state of mind: to be open to new ways of seeing things, creating, and solving problems—without judgment.
My son started class at age six. When he was handed his first ball of clay, he pushed his finger deeply into the center and said, “Mom, I can feel the heartbeat of the clay.” This was the beginning of a lifetime of learning from my children. Years later, when I would get particularly frustrated with my inability to make the clay take the shape I had envisioned, I remembered my son’s discovery. I took the pulse of the clay. I asked what it wanted to be. I discovered that my best pieces are done in partnership with the clay.
The work I do in the studio informs and energizes the work I do as a professional, as a developer of leaders. I have learned to take the pulse of life, to take note of what other people want—and need. Now I know that leadership is about collaboration and partnership. In softening my bottom line orientation, I get better results.
I believe that the joy of losing myself in the quest to shape a perfect curve empowers me to take on more difficult challenges in all of life. Perhaps most important is the realization that listening to the clay has brought me to a level of focus and presence, connection and sense of possibility, that makes me happier and far more productive.
Now, wherever I am, I remain open to the “gifts from the kiln.”