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How looking at art can make you a better problem solver

Observing fine art can provide you with tools that help you approach dilemmas at work, says author and art historian Amy Herman.

How looking at art can make you a better problem solver
[Source Photo: mahdis mousavi/Unsplash]

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If you want to improve your ability to solve problems, a trip to an art museum might help. That’s because how you observe paintings, photographs, or sculptures can provide you with tools that help you approach dilemmas at work, says Amy Herman, author of Fixed: How to Perfect the Fine Art of Problem Solving.

“The best things happen on the exit ramp of your comfort zone,” she says. “It helps to get out of thinking about the same things in the same way that you do every day. And very few people look at works of art every day.”

Herman, who is an art historian and the founder and president of the Art of Perception, a New York-based organization that conducts professional development courses for leaders, including those at the FBI, NATO, and Scotland Yard, says seeking out new situations that are different than your everyday life can give you a way to look at a problem from another perspective. Here are three steps to try out:

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First, Observe

Go into a gallery (or look at art online) and ask yourself, “What works of art would I want to take home with me?”

“Perhaps you were drawn to that particular image because it reminds you of yourself or someone you know,” Herman says. “Maybe you can relate to the expression or age or body type of the subject. Or maybe you just enjoy the composition and colors. See what compels your attention—from the colors to the form.”

Then think about the work you like least, and allow yourself time to reflect. “Give yourself a full two minutes—set the timer on your phone—and study that image with an eye toward what exactly you don’t like,” Herman says.

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Spending time with art, especially with works that we don’t like, gets us out of our comfort zone. And how you look at art is a template for thinking about problem solving. Use your inherent sense of observation to walk around and think about things. “Don’t speak; just look,” Herman says.

Ask Questions

When you’re trying to solve a problem, don’t just put the burden on yourself. Ask someone else. What’s their perspective? Looking at art, everyone sees something different.

“I can put two people, such as two cops, in front of the same painting and ask them, ‘Tell me what you see,'” Herman says. “They’ll come up with entirely different versions of what they’re looking at, and it gets them thinking, Well, if this is happening here in front of the painting, what’s happening at the crime scene? It’s not about pointing out what you missed; it’s realizing that there is more to look at. It’s a fresh perspective to think about problem solving.”

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Be sure to ask others what they see, not what they think. “We all know people who jump into the meeting and say, ‘Let me tell you what I think,'” Herman says. “I don’t want to hear what you think until you say what it is that you see . . . [they] are very different.”

Finally, Read the Label

Once you understand what you see and you hear what others see, reconcile your observations with what’s on the label, the name of the work, and the background story. “The reason I don’t let people read labels before they look at works of art is it’s a form of confirmation bias,” Herman says. “You’re going to look for what the label tells you. And I believe that we all have such a strong inherent sense of observation that you should rely on that first and see what your own observations tell you. Then see what the label says, see what other people say, and how you can reconcile that.”

Thinking about problems in the way you would look at art provides a new road map, which Herman says is more important now than ever. “Everything’s broken right now,” she says. “When we come out of this pandemic, we’re all going to start from ground zero. We have to be able to fix it. This approach can give people help and a new perspective for trying to do that.”

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