Start drawing your own map

by | Apr 3, 2016

Is it time for an arts education revolution?

Being an artist requires that you are constantly discovering new ways to look at things. Instead of doing exactly what has been done before, you put your own spin on it. When you tell a story, it is shaped by your hopes and dreams, and coloured by the bumps and knocks you’ve had along the way. As an artist we might start and end at the same points as everybody else, but we insist on drawing our own map of how to get there.

This post seeks to begin a conversation about the current value of traditional university arts programs.

What if you took the equivalent time and money you would invest in a tertiary arts program (music, drama, film, dance) and funnelled it into a self directed path of study and experience?

This line of thought is dedicated to a young performer in her final year of secondary school who is questioning the value a tertiary degree would offer, and heavily inspired by this post from Ken Davenport, the manifestos by authors Tim Ferriss, Josh Kaufmann and my experience with the altMBA program designed by Seth Godin.

In their heyday, universities provided students with exclusive access to knowledge, resources and experts.

With the plethora of information that is available online (text, audio & video) and the immediate access to the world’s library of books (Amazon etc) via our Kindles, what value does the traditional tertiary education provide?

  • Resources curated by course designers.
  • Access to prohibitively costly resources (technology, labs, venues)
  • Like minded people (professional networking and accountability)

The level of enrolment that some students find in an ‘official course’ is what motivates them to keeping going. In the words of Seth Godin “as soon as education gets difficult (and useful education always gets difficult) it’s social pressure, peer pressure and our own need to fit in and achieve that often keeps us going.” [from “Will this be on the test?”]

Validation and accreditation are powerful motivators. When we are accepted into a course, our basic worth as an artist is validated by the selection panel. We then spend three years working towards a certificate of completion whose tangible value is only measured by what you do next.

We spend years of our lives, and thousands of dollars – buying permission to take a place at the starting line of our actual career.

Accreditation doesn’t award success, it merely acknowledges it. Once a song ranks number one on the Billboard chart it has already sold more than any other song in its category that week. Winning the Best Picture Oscar didn’t make Spotlight a better film, instead it was an nod from the industry recognising the work of the filmmakers.

Certain professions require certification by a governing body. Without certification you cannot practise as a lawyer or doctor.

You can’t be certified as an artist. The only person who can give you permission to create art is yourself.

Musicians aren’t recognised for their academic qualifications and audition panels barely glance at the history of an actor’s training on their cv. An artist will be measured by their skills in the moment (performance, audition, etc) and by their body of work, not by whether or where they were awarded a bachelor’s degree.

What if you were to skip that formal process – choose to give yourself permission – and get a three year headstart on your contemporaries?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that you won’t have things to learn. There will always be things to learn, but “we learn what we do, not what we’re told.”

Let’s consider an alternative arts education that is:

Project based.

Do the work and get it out into the world for feedback. Will people read, listen to, watch, buy or be transformed by your project? Gather feedback, consider what you can learn from it and then begin the process again.


Your iteration may be a revision of the same project, or it might be applying your learning and growth to something new.

In the open.

As you share your learning publicly with the world you may feel vulnerable and uncertain of how your work will be received. This is a crucial learning experience. An essential quality of any artist is the ability to live with uncertainty. Innovation is uncertain by definition and when you forsake it you relinquish your role as an artist and become a craftsman/woman.

Sharing your projects with an audience allows you to measure their response. By doing your work in public rather than in the isolation of a classroom, you learn to share the story behind your work and the story the audience tells themselves about their experience of it.

You learn to consider the business aspects of the work you do.

  • How do you market your work to the public that invites them to engage (watch, listen, click, download, buy tickets)?
  • How do you make this sustainable? What needs to happen so that you can continue to do this work?


What resources are needed for a self directed arts education?

A curated suggested learning list to use as a jumping off point for transformation:

  • The written word: Books. Online articles. Lyrics. Poetry.
  • Video: Great performances. Inspiring speeches. Powerful films and documentaries.
  • Audio: Definitive recordings. Podcasts featuring ‘virtual professors’. Audio of authors reading their own words.

A network of support:

  • Established artists who are prepared to support and mentor
  • Network of students with a shared attitude towards education and transformation creating a peer to peer network online and in person

In a self directed education program:

  • Your accountability is to yourself and your fellow students rather than a teacher or institution
  • You are responsible for setting and meeting your own deadlines
  • You get realtime market feedback from your work and unlike the situation where you don’t see eye to eye with a particular teacher, if one audience doesn’t respond to your work you have the opportunity to find the audience who does
  • The artist who is a self-starter and entrepreneurial can experiment with unorthodox strategies

“If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience – you don’t test them, you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.” SG

I’d love for this piece to be a conversation starter. I invite your comments below. Is a self directed arts education program something that excites your imagination? I value your thoughts on the pros and cons. If you have suggestions for the suggested learning list you can submit them here.

Be a contender

How will they know you’re ready? When you step up and demonstrate it through your actions. By taking a leap and showing that you know how to play the game. The beauty is that once you’ve begun, you no longer need someone else’s permission.

Build your own dream team

When you let your lack of skills in a certain area stop you from doing the work you’re meant to do, it’s time to look at who else is on your team.
Chances are that your current personal and professional network is already brimming with untapped ’super powers’.

Be intentional

Consider how much time you put aside for those things that you say are important in your day to day life and make certain that you’re being intentional today in a way that will matter tomorrow.

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