3 Questions with Michael Anton Dila
Entrepreneur, innovator, and pot-stirrer Michael Anton Dila on getting dirty, lighting fires, and the importance of nurturing a troubled mind.
3 QUESTIONS is series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.
“Great artists and designers have always also been fighters and revolutionaries.”
What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?
Get dirty, put skin in the game, struggle with how you think and what you think about. Be prepared to fight to realize your vision, to bring your ideas into reality. Great artists and designers have always also been fighters and revolutionaries. The challenge you’ll face is how to reconcile these impulses with the worldliness of making a living and having a life that is not defined solely by work. A friend of mine started a regular conversation which he calls, STRUGGLE & CONTEMPLATION. I really like that as a nice, concise way of describing the activities that ought to be at the core of creative work.
How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?
For me, creativity requires the nurturing of a “troubled mind.” It helps, in my case, that my mind is naturally troubled: restless, anxious, searching. So, I’ve found it important to provide my mind with a constant diet of complexity. I read voraciously and widely and include in what I consider “reading” the input of all my senses. Google gives its employees 20% of their time to devote to projects that aren’t assigned, but which interest them personally. I’m on a 50% time innovation budget and try to spend much of it in constant conversation with people who are smarter and more accomplished than me. Dorothy Parker said: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Well, I’m never bored and I’m definitely incurable.
Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?
I started a fire in a neighbour’s treehouse when I was twelve. It burned to the ground, but the “punishments” meted out to me, i.e., a trip to the firehouse for a lecture, a Sparky colouring book, and an apology to the man of the house, completely failed to reform me. Rather than try to avoid danger, I have just tried to stay ahead of it. So when I bluffed my way into my first major innovation project in 1997, I felt the heat of that same treehouse fire under my ass. These days I actively and wantonly look for places to start trouble. That tends to be were I find the sweet spot between excitement, opportunity, and value.
For this, I take to heart the words of the great American naval warrior, John Paul Jones: “I wish to have no connection to any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.” In other words, a good ship and a great crew are necessary companions on any important creative journey.
Michael Anton Dila is a founder of UNFINISHED (2012), Moso (2010) and a co-founder of Foundery (an innovation lab in Toronto, 2010), Torch Innovation (2010), Overlap (peer-to-peer innovation organization, 2006), Torch Partnership (strategy and Innovation consulting, 2006), Aegis (strategy, 1999). Dila is chief catalyst of the Unfinished Business Initiative, and helped establish the Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College or Art & Design.