Can you have too much creativity?

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  • Creativity
  • Social brain
  • Health & wellbeing

Adam Lent's rallying cry for creativity met with strong tacit approval from the echo-chamber, and rightly so. What's not to like? Creativity is a feel-good concept, tapping into to the value of human freedom, with pleasant undertones of productivity, individuality, and style.

No sane person would therefore come out against creativity consciously and explicitly, which is why Adam suggests many vested interests in big business and government are clearly anti-creative in practice, but won't admit to it in those terms. But what if the fact that creativity is inherently unobjectionable poses a deeper problem for the RSA's emerging world view?

Creativity is hollow and needs filling out:

I am reminded of Voltaire's famous reply to the complaint that "Life is hard” -  “Compared to what?”. Creativity doesn't really make sense as a stand alone concept, and Voltaire's response would be almost as stinging as a response to "Creativity is good". Compared to being uncreative might is the obvious answer, but that just kicks the can further down the road.

Sooner or later you have to hook up a particular idea of creativity to some broader patterns of values, ideology and human nature which are much more open to dispute, and any inspiring organisational strategy will be explicit about those links.

Adam has begun to do that in terms of the concentrations of power and vested interests that we believe need to be challenged, but I think it's important to keep in mind from the outset that we need to do more of that because 'creativity', as such, is hollow.

To make sense of this claim, consider the related point that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing(chocolate, wine, holidays...). You can sense the hollow nature of creativity when you ask whether there are optimal levels of creativity, and what the personal and social maturation of creativity would look like.

Adam is right that a lack of creativity can be stifling, but it is no less true that too much creativity could be chaotic, manic, even mad. The point is that the question about where you draw that line does not lend itself to a creative answer, but to an inherently political one, which is why we need to be clearer and more open about what promoting 'the power to create' entails.

Before we promote the growth of creativity let's reflect on the fact that most forms of growth have natural limits.

Most forms of growth have natural limits. To give a related example, the most impressive critique of indefinite economic growth for its own sake is not that it is ecologically hazardous to a self-defeating extent(which it is) nor that it brings sharply diminishing if not vanishing or negative returns to wellbeing (the jury is out on which of those is closest to the truth) but that it's simply absurd - measuring societal progress through indefinite economic growth makes no sense and has no meaning at a human scale, as the Skidelskies argue in their wonderful book: "How Much is Enough?".

Just as we need to qualify the need for economic growth with a conception of economic maturity (a concept I picked up from Andrew Simms) we also need some idea of how much creativity is good for us and society. Otherwise this idea of everybody, everywhere, all the time, being as creative as possible, sounds absurd (not to mention exhausting) and will begin to feel like a panacea that is literally incredible.

Moreover, if we don't clarify the scope and texture of creativity at the outset, RSA calls to 'unleash' the power to create will have a cheerleading groupthink quality to them, which are in danger of sounding ever so slightly creepy, and that is definitely not what Adam is advocating, nor what the RSA is or should be about.

(As a provocative comparison, consider Susan Cain's celebrated TED talk on the value of introversion, where she recalls, with bemused horror, being at a summer camp where all the kids were forced to be more extroverted by being brought together to sing/chant: "Let's all be rowdy!").

Creativity: means, end, or a bit of both?

So when Adam says (in jest, I know!) "expect us all to be taking to the barricades yelling “Liberté! Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité!” I see an instructive category mistake.

Liberty, equality and fraternity (for which we should probably read 'solidarity' in the early 21st century) are all contested ideas, but most forms of these concepts are typically viewed as ends in themselves(often somewhat incommensurate with each other) while creativity is surely more like a means towards the ends we care about, in which case the question remains: which ends?

As a non-partisan charity, does the RSA say we are passionate about being creative but ambivalent, indifferent or non-aligned on what the creativity leads to? Surely not.

However fuzzy, we do care about some form of the social good. Adam is right that creativity is in our DNA, but so is our focus on 'undertakings for the publick good' (wonderful spelling from our original eighteenth century enlightenment mission).

But here's the thing: computer hackers, unscrupulous marketeers, dodgy accountants and genocidal war criminals are notoriously creative, and we don't want to be complicit in all those forms of creative activity. So if we are for creativity, what kinds of creativity are we against? Are there limits to how creative we should want people or society to be?

What are the nature of those limits in terms of human rights, ecological limits, levels of inequality and so forth - how does supporting 'the power to create' help us to draw those lines?

(There's a separate argument to be made on how the emerging worldview links with cultural theory - at present it reads like a largely individualist view that is vulnerable to solidaristic and authoritarian critiques, i.e. it's not 'clumsy' enough..).

computer hackers, unscrupulous marketeers, dodgy accountants and genocidal war criminals are notoriously creative, and we don't want to be complicit in all those forms of creative activity.

The pragmatic response is to say the RSA focus is on creativity and we will lead the way by showing how it can be used for the social good. That's fine, but it makes us sound more like the honest broker rather than the campaigning organising we are striving to be. To get to that transformative change, we need not so much to define creativity as to give it more definition.

Creativity: Individualism by stealth?

Adam refers to creativity in terms of "an act that is unique to an individual’s own capacities or vision (and...) the unique, pro-active and self-determined nature of the activity".  The argument is on relatively strong terrain when he argues, with Mill, that the quintessence of what it is to be a 'free' human being is to be 'creative', and it is useful to juxtapose that emancipating vision with the spread of mindless and passive consumption under late(st) capitalism. I also like the general idea of people being less passive and reactive and more pro-active and creative.

At the same time, at present 'the power to create' has an implicit individualist and libertarian emphasis, and I would like to see that made more explicit, if only because there are other readings of recent world events that don't chime with this view.

I am not at all sure modern history appears to be unfolding towards creative economies full of self-generated value, because I think that is only one of many current trends, and by no means obviously the dominant one.

More generally, there are many counter-trends to the rise of the creative individual: Where is the occupy movement? Where is nationalism? Where is the Arab spring? There are also plenty of examples of Governments overreaching - what does the power to create tell us about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor?

What if social media is not just used to enhance creativity but also to support Government oppression, as Mozorov and others have argued it does? There are also many (majority of the British public) who want to see more Government, not less, for instance in their support for rail and energy nationalisation.

while some forms of creativity may be good for us, the key driver of wellbeing is the quality of our relationships


Finally, while some forms of creativity may be good for us, the key driver of wellbeing is the quality of our relationships, and for the last four years we have been arguing that the model of the self-directed individual is partial at best. If humans are, as I believe them to be, fundamentally social (see Transforming Behaviour Change, part one) there is still a place for individual initiative but the power in 'power to create' has to be grounded in relationships, and the purpose of creativity has to be about enhancing the range of quality of those relationships.

The call for more creativity is good, sound, and timely. But before that becomes our defining rallying cry, let's clarify what kinds of creativity we want, and how much creativity we need, for the deeper and more political ends that we really care about.



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  • Thanks again Jonathan for an interesting blog in response to Adam Lent and a call for more creativity. I had a few thoughts in response.

    Perhaps firstly, creativity is I understand half of who we are - half of our brain is devoted to creativity, intuition, non-rational consciousness. When we live in such a materialist money-driven rational-focused logic-driven culture, our creative side is very likely starved to be exercised freely. Perhaps this is why we feel compelled to be allowed to create. Working life as many of us know it is far too regimented and stifling. I think that creativity is time, whether individually or collectively, to let go and create outside of our very tight social bounds: this is a time to discover and explore, as well as become more conscious and expansive. Creativity allows us to discover our authenticity rather than our individuality.

    Stepping back, on a wider societal context, I in a way agree with you that more creativity is needed on a relationship level. How and what that looks like I'm still exploring, but I have experienced it in many contexts when a group came together and created something much greater than the sum of the individual parts. In this creative emergence there is a real need for both the individual's authentic creativity and also a surrender to a group process. Very often this process seemed timeless, and felt like we were operating as one being. This could be symbolic of an emergence that Elizabeth Sartoris refers to.

  • I wanted to make a bit of a narrow Clumsy Theory-related point, rather than comment on your whole blog post, but I hope you can stay with me Jonathan...


    Interesting that you make a connection to the 'Clumsy theory' model of multiple rationalities, that Matthew Taylor finds particularly helpful in understanding the world - and what the most creative solutions to complex problems should look like.

    We should presumably distinguish between a laudable 'Clumsy' form of creativity - that manages to integrate and honour individualist, solidaristic and expert/hierarchical approaches - and a (slightly less laudable, but still vital) pre-Clumsy form that builds off just one of these modes; probably a very elegant form of creativity but it might prove rather brittle when faced with the complexity of reality!

    'Clumsy' thinking emerges most fully from what Prof Robert Kegan calls the 'Self-transforming' (postmodern) mind - and he told us that's probably around 4-5 million people in the UK, when I invited him over to give that RSA lecture last year:

    Little wonder that Kegan argues that only the Self-transforming (Clumsy) mind is really adequate to respond creatively to the 'wicked' issues the world faces.

    How can we get this creative pool of 5 million up to 10 million? To 20 million? 70 million? ;-)

    So, I would argue that the RSA perhaps needs to explicitly focus on supporting the shift from the Socialised (Traditional) mind to Self-authoring (Modern) mind to the Self-transforming (Postmodern) mind.

    There's fantastic work on how this is being done in schools (by Ellie Drago-Severson) and in HE by Marcia Baxter Magolda. (The shift students make from the Socialised mind to the Self-authoring mind is a key role of HE - and our report 'Beyond the Big Society - Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship' showed that it is also a crucial foundation for active citizenship too:

    Though the shift to the postmodern (Self-transforming) mind is clearly a bit more complicated - it's less common, and requires more of a break with the common ways of doing things...

    It will be interesting to see whether Prof Kegan's upcoming (free) Harvard/edX MOOC on overcoming 'immunity to change' brings out these shifts or not. (I'm doing the course that starts later this month. Another starts in March).

    Sign up for his course here:

    Of course, we don't actually know how the global landscape breaks down between Trad, Modern and Postmodern minds.

    Kegan's own assessment tool - a complicated interview process - is too time-consuming to get a representative global picture of what the pool for 'Clumsy' creativity might be, where the biggest gaps are etc.

    Though, as you'll remember, when we had a meal with Prof Kegan he was very interested in using the automatic online 'Values Modes' assessment as a surrogate - if it correlates reasonably well with his model. (His early book The Evolving Self suggests it will correlate).

    For my own interest, I once made a map of the Trad/Modern/Postmodern(Clumsy) characeristics and activities of the RSA itself - perhaps we can just look in the 'Clumsy' zone of my map, to see what examples of 'Clumsy' creativity there are, out in RSA-land? And support those in particular? Or not!

    The Clumsy theorists themselves advocate approaches like 'Future Search' as good 'Clumsy' ways to create change and engagement - perhaps the RSA needs to be using large group methods like that? (Particular with the focus on engagement that Matthew had in his annual lecture).

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

    PS I already made the point elsewhere that a good RSA-ish focus on creativity could be to adapt Prof Lynda Gratton's work on nourishing hotspots of creativity. It brings together Social Network Analysis - a signature strength of the RSA - and creativity.
    Read the first chapter of her book here: