How an Introverted Graffiti Artist Became a Star Keynote Speaker
“Creativity is a muscle that must face resistance for it to grow stronger.”
READ ON TO DISCOVER:
How to excel at public speaking—even if you’re an introvert
Why art and meditation go hand in hand
Why money is truly neither good nor bad
Erik Wahl is a visual artist, author, and highly sought-after keynote speaker who inspires audiences to unleash their creativity and achieve superior performance. He recently joined Ryan Hawk, the creator and host of The Learning Leader Show, to talk about his unlikely journey from corporate America into the world of performance art, and how the right habits can help your creativity flourish.
Ryan: I’m one of the fortunate ones who has seen you perform in person, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been as impacted as I was that day.
I want to learn about your process for putting together what I would call your art, your performance when you’re up on stage, sharing your message. The way that you involve video, music, and your painting. How did you come up with that style?
Erik: I’m not a big fan of motivational speaking. There’s a lot of ‘rah-rah,’ and it inflates people—and there’s value to that in the short-term—but I have never wanted to be that guy. What fascinates me are live music experiences, live theater, the humanity of a connection, of a shared experience.
I love to go to concerts, where audiences just come alive. They can’t get enough because they have left their reality, their frustrations, their day job, and they’ve been transported into this new place where almost the molecules in the room have changed.
I am delivering actionable substance on topics of value for the client, for the audience. But it’s all crafted inside this idea of performance and creating a disruptive moment, a ‘wow’ moment, and continuing to do that throughout the course of the presentation.
We would call it a performance, but I’m often booked as the opening keynote speaker for a conference, or a closing keynote speaker, to kick things off or close things up on a high note.
Ryan: You worked in the corporate world for about ten years, and as a child, you were told by a teacher that art was not your strength. Is that correct?
Erik: Yeah, I was seven. I was good at spelling tests, math tests. I was very much affirmed for that, [but] I wasn’t affirmed for art. I stopped painting, drawing, creating, singing, dancing, freely expressing myself, and I moved towards operationally, efficiently knocking out grades.
“Money is neither good nor bad. It’s just an energy, a way by which we provide ourselves security and nourishment, and are able to help others.”
Ryan: And so, you go on and take the traditional route, so to speak, and that leads you to a normal, comfortable, safe job. When was that?
Erik: I went to college, entered pre-med because my father was a doctor, [then] switched over to business. The whole process was to get good grades so that I could get a good job, so that I could get a good amount of money, so that I could be secure, so that I could retire early, and then start living life.
That formula, that’s the American dream. That’s what we’re encouraged to do, and it makes sense unless too much of our identity is consumed by this idea of success, which ended up being a false oasis for me. A lot of my happiness was centered around financial security. If you would’ve met me at parties in my 20s, I would’ve said, “I’ve got a good job, but family is the most important thing to me.” That was my company line, and it worked well. However, my life didn’t really reflect it. I worked from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, and if I closed a deal, I was happy. If the stock market went up, I was happy. If my net worth increased, I was happy. If I lost a deal, man, I was unhappy. If the stock market went down or my individual stocks went down, I was pissed.
Money is neither good nor bad. It’s just an energy, a way by which we provide ourselves security and nourishment, and are able to help others. But my relationship with money and success was unhealthy at the time. I thought it was fine until I lost everything after the dot-com bomb. And I realized that was my identity, my ego, my security. I was addicted to security, and once my 401k, my kids’ college education, my future was disrupted and taken away from me, it was a very dark time for me.
Which is when I turned to art. It wasn’t something where I leapt into the arts. It was a slow crawl. But through spending time with artists, I said, “Man, they just see life differently.” It’s not about consumption, it wasn’t about financial success. There was more gratitude for life that I had talked about in theory, but not fully experienced. I had nothing, and so it was really a great place to start.
But what I also noticed was that these artists, even though they had these great ideas, these brilliant products or songs or lyrics or art, they also had a little bit of self-absorption or almost depression, because the world didn’t [understand] them. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t ‘either/or,’ it was ‘yes, and.’ There’s a lot to the practicality and the discipline of what I’d learned as a structured student, but there was also a lot to this free-flowing, imaginative, expansive thinking. That’s where this whole idea was born from, where so many of my writings were born from, and what this presentation ended up being. I never went to speaking school or art school; I built this plane as I flew it based on what I liked and what I was drawn towards, not what had been a historical best practice. And so, I’ve gone very unconventional routes by which to pursue mastery. That connection to my curiosity or beginner’s mind has been what’s driven a lot of what others would call my success. I just call it my journey.
I’m insatiably curious about how to connect with audiences through film, through speaking, through art, through writing, through poetry. It was hard for me to share [my story] at the beginning. I didn’t want it to be, “Woe is me,” or, “Look at my sad story.” But I’m holding up a mirror, and the audience is recalling a specific moment in their life where they experienced a similar setback, and that connection brings us together and makes the presentation not a lecture, but rather a communal human experience.
Ryan: I think people would be surprised that you call yourself an introvert, because when you get on stage, you own that place. You are in command, you appear to be unbelievably confident. So how do you make that shift from being an introverted guy to getting up on stage [when] it’s go time?
Erik: The definition of an introvert is someone who gains energy by being alone. [When] I’m at a cocktail party [or] even on stage, I’m not gaining energy, I’m expending energy. I love performing, absolutely love that connection, [but] once I’m done on the stage, I’m spent, and I experience this comedown where I have to be alone. A lot of people do book signings or go to cocktail parties or go to dinner, but I just don’t. I have to go be alone because I just left it all out on the court, and I’ve got to go back and refill myself so that I can be connected to audiences later on, or to my wife, or to my show producer or the meeting planner.
I don’t think performing is an act of extroversion as much as an act of connection or authenticity. I have great confidence going up because, almost like an athlete prepares to take the field, I go through a very structured routine of stretching and meditation and solitude before I come out to the stage. I’m switching my mindset from it being about me and about my information to being about them, who they are and what’s going to resonate with them. And so, it takes all the pressure, all of the nervousness, all the anxiety, all of the cortisol that my body would release [from], “Is my ego going to do okay? Am I going to rock the house?” to being something of adrenaline, like, “I can’t wait to get out there. I can’t wait to share with this audience. I can’t wait to see how they receive this video, this painting, this interaction.”
I like to do a lot of freestyle and improv interaction with the audience, because that is authentic and because when I’m onstage, my mind is just open. It’s [in] its most free, uncluttered state. A lot of people say that public speaking is their greatest fear. And for me, it’s almost the opposite. That’s my greatest space of comfort, where my mind is the most relaxed and open.
On the flip side of that, you put me on the other side of a camera or an interview or acting, I freeze up. I experience that tension and anxiety and, “Did I say that right? Did that come off okay? My voice sounds funny. Am I fat?”
It’s those [times] when my mind is the most open and expansive, versus when it’s cluttered and busy, and that’s why I’ve become a student of meditation. It’s a decluttering of my mind. It is a space of quietude where I’m able to actually open and expand my consciousness and really think at a higher level.
“Creativity is a muscle that must face resistance for it to grow stronger.”
And that’s really what art has been about for me: producing thinking. Art was a form of meditation and has expanded my consciousness. It refined my awareness of being able to see, to think, to write, and that was so freeing, so liberating, almost so intoxicating to me that I just couldn’t get enough of it. So I’ve continued to pursue it, and what I’ve learned is that meditation is almost the highest form of self-discipline because it’s so difficult. You can’t measure it, you can’t measure success. It’s all about letting go. It’s not about achieving more, but it’s that letting go of stuff that doesn’t directly relate to my why, to my purpose, to my intent. Being able to declutter my mind from all of that is where I’m most effective in being able to share and communicate and think.
Ryan: In your newest book, The Spark and the Grind: Ignite the Power of Disciplined Creativity, you talk about committing to a steady practice of creativity, what you call a lifestyle of iteration. How do you practice that?
Erik: It starts with passion. You have to understand why you want to be creative, and that’s where I’m expanding the notion of what creativity is. It’s not some whimsical idea. For me, it’s an energy or routine for how to view myself, my life, and my performances, constantly seeing old things from a new perspective. I think Adam Grant calls it “vuja de,” these things that we’ve seen many times before, but [having] the disciplined practice of seeing them again with fresh eyes. Being emotionally intelligent, being empathetic, seeing it from a perspective that’s not my own. “What was my wife’s perspective in that last discussion? Why did I hurt her feelings? Man, if I [were] her, yeah, that was hurtful.” I didn’t mean it to be hurtful, but if I’m empathic, I understand. “I’m really sorry. I hurt your feelings.”
So, it’s a disciplined process of becoming more proactive in embracing the now. It’s a routine, and it’s intentionally embracing hardship. Creativity is a muscle that must face resistance for it to grow stronger. A lot of times when we face ambiguity and uncertainty, we pull back and we stop, like I did when I was [young]. I received rejection. I stopped. But if we want to become healthier at the gym, we need to face resistance. We need to face hardship. We’ve got to sweat, we’ve got to grind so that we can grow and become healthier.
I intentionally look for hardships to push myself. Early on in my speaking career, I would set my alarm for 5:00 am. Before I even had a date booked, I would get up and walk around my neighborhood, rehearsing my presentation in my head before the sun came up. Not because that made a lot of practical sense, but because that disciplined action of doing the hard, lonely work was satisfying for me. That’s what made me better and more comfortable and more confident.
“Pursue excellence, pursue mastery, be insatiably curious, and let the money come where it may.”
It’s the same thing I do with painting. 99% of my artwork is done in the studio. No one will ever see it. But it’s those explorations and pushing and chucking paintings across the studio and throwing my paintbrushes on the floor because it didn’t work out. I need to go through those things to come up with a painting that doesn’t suck, or a piece of writing that I feel good about. It’s constantly doing it and being disciplined [enough] to work through my suckiness to find moments of goodness.
Ryan: Why don’t you sell your paintings?
Erik: The idea of commoditizing art has never been something that I’ve been very comfortable with. One of the reasons why I branded myself as a graffiti artist early on is because street art is for the people. It wasn’t meant to be commoditized or sold in gift shops; it was meant to just be shared with people. For me, art is a form of self-expression. It’s a form of sharing ideas, like we used to carve or etch on cave walls to share our legacy, our history, our story.
Ryan: So if somebody wanted to get one of your paintings, the only way is either through being in the audience and being one of the lucky ones, or potentially one of your art drops?
Erik: I don’t sell any of my artwork anywhere. I don’t sell it in galleries or gift shops, I don’t do commissioned pieces for clients, or even friends or family. But what I will do is I’ll hide a piece of artwork in various cities that I’m performing in, and people will try and unlock these treasure hunts that I release on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat to figure out where I hid this painting. That’s been a fun, engaging way for me to share my art without selling or commoditizing it.
And when I perform for corporations or foundations, I gift the paintings back to them as a thank you for bringing me in, and then they will auction those paintings off to raise money for great causes. Using my artwork to raise money for a great cause was of far greater value to me than being able to profit from it. That just wasn’t part of my identity or something that I wanted to be associated with.
There is more to life than success or money. I say pursue excellence, pursue mastery, be insatiably curious, and let the money come where it may. It seems to come to those who are passionate, and to those who provide value. It’s not about making money. It’s about providing value.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.