The RSA uses cookies on this website. By using this website you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more read our cookie policy and privacy policy. More Info

The Inner Power to Create

Blog 8 Comments

  • Creativity
  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

- Mahatma Gandhi

I started writing this post a few moments after returning from a 'Satsang' at the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Putney. These free gatherings take place five minutes from my home and follow a familiar routine of four roughly half hour chunks; meditating (mostly concentration), chanting (mostly Kirtan), listening to a lecture(mostly free-flowing responses to an idea in one of the texts by the movement's two founders) and sharing a meal(always vegetarian, usually lentils).

I go there for a spiritual 'hit', a change of scene, and a sense of community that is not mediated by social status. The setting is not without religious (mostly Hindu/Vedantic) signifiers, but they feel mythological and ritualistic rather than propositional, in that they are about the experience of symbolic meaning rather than the textual description of reality. The whole process leaves me feeling energised and renewed, but without that gnawing sense of intellectual compromise that haunts me in churches.

Tonight I was struck by something the Swami (teacher) said in her talk that got me thinking about the RSA's emerging worldview, currently called 'The Power to Create'. The Swami didn't use the Gandhi quote above I was familiar with. Instead she spoke about the importance of retaining coherence between what we think, say and do, not so much for happiness, but for confidence, which may be a prerequisite for it.

If we think things are one way, but say otherwise; or if we say things should be so, but don't act accordingly, it's not just corrosive to wellbeing, it undermines our sense of agency.

When I strongly disagree but say I mostly agree, or when I say I want to lose weight but reach for the third piece of chocolate cake, my sense of self-efficacy is eroded. When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it's literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it's literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

This was a timely thought. I have been trying to figure out what it is about the RSA's emerging world view that leaves me feeling a little uneasy. I knew it was something about its value neutrality and lack of emphasis on our inner lives, but I couldn't quite place it, and now I have a clearer idea.

The Power to Create has a kaleidoscopic core, but on my current understanding it tends to pivot around the following five interrelated ideas:

  • An analysis of ongoing socio-technical disruption: The reality of new technologies undermining old forms of cultural, political and economic power.
  • A grasp of the urgency of innovation: The need for new ideas and institutional forms to tackle major systemic problems.
  • A belief in the value of of mass creativity: A vision of social transformation grounded in meaningful creativity for the many, not the few.
  • A reappraisal of 'small is beautiful': The belief that a legion of small initiatives can and should challenge or usurp big businesses and governments in areas where their activity is relatively ineffectual.
  • A philosophy of freedom: A commitment to a vision of the good life grounded in self-actualisation and the joy of turning our ideas into reality.
  • It sounds a lot better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, as they say, but at present what's missing is a theory of how changes in our inner lives correspond with the changes in the external world.

    The heart of the power to create vision, it seems to me, is a reconceptualisation of agency that is currently described in the third person ('it' language) but it will need to find form in first ('I' language) and second ('You' or 'we') person expression. It's not enough for 'people' to turn their ideas into reality, but particular 'I's, 'we's, and 'you's need to consistently live in ways that retain coherence between thought, word and deed.

    If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more than people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually work for visions of their better selves, and for the greater good of others too. 

    That may be possible, and worth striving for, but is it likely? I think it comes down to how optimistic you are about human beings. I generally take the Gramscian view that pessimism of the intellect is reasonable, but optimism of the will is essential, so it's just not enough to believe willpower or positive thinking will get us through.

    If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually strive for visions of their better more integrated selves, and for the greater good of others too. We can't just take that kind of personal growth for granted as an article of faith.

    What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one's perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them and lives for that very purpose? 

    I think the 'power to create' vision would become much more powerful if it could answer the following question: What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one's perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them, and lives for that very purpose?

    We know that kind of shift takes deep and resilient self confidence but we also know such confidence is fragile. As I have argued before as part of our work on the social relevance of spirituality, any theory of social transformation needs a commensurately robust account of personal transformation to go with it.

    We need to give more thought to our inner power to create.

     

    Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and tweets here.

    Join the discussion

    8 Comments

    Please login to post a comment or reply

    Don't have an account? Click here to register.

    • Talking to people like Bill Torbert and Bob Kegan, there doesn’t seem to be any research specifically looking at how a person’s ‘action logic’/cognitive complexity relates to their view of creativity.

      There has, though, been research on how different ‘action logics’ relate to ambiguity, for example – a key component in real creativity,
      I would argue. Conventional action logics run away from it, of course, but less conventional action logics begin to accept it, and even embrace it. Finally there’s even a figure-ground shift in which ambiguity is seen as the foundation of everything, and is encouraged.
      Something like that.

      There was some research that Prof Clare Graves did – which found that Spiral Dynamics’ ‘yellow’ Value meme (a less common, more ‘integral’ one) was a 10 times more creative at coming up with novel ideas than other value
      memes, perhaps even all the other value memes added together. I’ve never been
      able to find the full details, only a line or two about it…

      Do look at Nick Udall’s book, though, as it’s all about this question – though in what I’ve seen so far, he doesn’t actually dig into empirical evidence. The book’s too short for much of that…

      The issues he raises of enabling safe spaces for the knowing-not knowing dynamic of deep
      creativity seems spot on. I guess it’s also been popularised by Claus Otto Scharmer’s ‘U Process’, that one of our colleagues is trained in.

      Some fascinating novel evidence about how
      creativity/entrepreneurship relates to self-control and a whole range of psychological and biological variables over time is set to emerge from Prof Terrie Moffitt’s amazing Dunedin longitudinal study.

      And I prompted Terrie to look back into the self-control measure they’ve been using. Turns out it has its roots at least partly in Jane
      Loevinger’s ego stage developmental theory. In all the decades of the Dunedin study, they’d
      never looked at creativity before – so look out for it when it comes. There’s also a documentary about the study coming.

    • For any individual at any time there will be a range of actions or behaviours that could be coherent for them. An individual's participation in a group will influence where on that continuum they act from. For example, among my family and my team I'm drawn towards the better end of my coherent range... among my university friends, it's decidedly on the lower. Too many times into the incoherent side, and I'll start 'lowering my range' or altogether leave the group.

      In terms of practice it may be the role of explicitly stated values in a group and the conditions and practices that keep those values in play. What's happening with Brendan Eich at Mozilla might be interesting to look at from the perspective. The role of culture in tech startups might be a particularly interesting study because of the pace of development and position of privilege they often come from.

      But back to it, I don't think you can build collective coherence without individual coherence, but rather, working from collective coherence I would suspect net improvement would be greater.

      Religion too would be ripe ground for exploring the interplay of individual and collective coherence... and once again... we come back to something that smacks of '21st century enlightenment'.

    • Thanks for the comment and the idea, Igniter. Is there a way to build collective coherence without individual coherence - can you give some idea of what that might look like in practice please?

    • Interesting direction. No doubt the capacity for developing that internal coherence is important. I'm particularly struck though by the notion of how collective coherence/transformation happens. Where high coherence among individuals will likely remain rare and poorly distributed, could collective coherence be easier to achieve? Could our individual coherence be more flexible/adaptive in the group context than strictly as an individual. And similarly, does that apply to our individual sense of agency. Are we more likely to experience agency as part of positive collectives. And so could developing collective coherence and agency be a helpful? Looking back at the other themes, it might actually be an interesting way to them all together. Could it also be more compatible with a philosophy of freedom - distancing slightly from the individual focus and instead recognizing that all individuals have the capacity to be more coherent in different situations.

      Whatever the case, shifting mindsets are a requisite to systemic shifts. Whatever the approach, it does seem central to '21st century enlightenment'.

      Very provocative post. Thanks!.

    • Thanks Jonathan. I especially liked: "Because we don't recognize what we see, we don't say what we think. Then we don't do what we say, which leads to that we don't see what we do." (though I am curious about the rationale for the first part).

      Your comment about the spiritually inclined keeping those five points of the power to create in mind reminded me of a tweet from one of our best critical friends on this post: I wrote: "Any theory of social transformation requires a commensurately robust theory of personal transformation." Jayarava replied: "And vice-versa!"

    Related articles