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When it comes to words, I'm never quite sure whether I'm the hunter or the hunted.

After four years writing a PhD about 'wisdom', I emerged only somewhat the wiser. In my current role I'm often asked to talk or advise people on 'behaviour change', but rarely manage to hide my discomfort with the ambiguity of 'behaviour' and the maddening vagueness of 'change'. Now I find myself leading a two year thought leadership project on 'spirituality' - a concept that does strange things to people's facial expressions. And just when I thought I might finally be emerging into a post-conceptual, keep-it-real adulthood, my employer decided to build a strategic review around a reappraisal of 'creativity'.

Many RSA staff are just getting on with it, content with a common-sense understanding of the term, only slightly troubled by the possibility that the epicentre of their organisation's world view is so contested. For most purposes that's fine, but for me, a seasoned concept wrestler, I'm looking for a bit more of a fight.

It's not that I think we need to define creativity, because an over-reliance on definitions is pseudo-intelligent, a pretence at axiomatic logic that denatures living ideas. As Ambrose Bierce’s celebrated ‘Devil’s Dictionary’ puts it:

“Definition: The vivisection tray upon which a word is splayed; while the gist may be clearly labelled with coloured pins, resuscitation becomes problematic.”[1]

There is something lazy about merely defining a term, sweeping the attendant intellectual rubble under your resolutely practical carpet, and thinking that part of your work is done.

There is something lazy about merely defining a term, sweeping the attendant intellectual rubble under your resolutely practical carpet, and thinking that part of your work is done.

There are things you can do to make words tractable that doesn't involve defining them. By reading, writing, experimenting and talking you can develop a certain intimate familiarity with the concepts that shape your work, which is why my first reaction to creativity taking a central place in RSA's vision and mission was constructively sceptical if not critical - I didn't feel that kind of connection and could barely imagine developing it.

But things change. Over the last few months I have been quietly wrestling with creativity, like Jacob with the Angel, and I didn't want to let go until I could say 'creativity' with a better felt sense of what I was talking about.


So here goes. There is no lack of material out there, and it comes from a variety of disciplines, practices and perspectives, so I'm going to be extremely selective here. My main impression is that pre-internet theories of creativity that are predominantly psychological (for instance Howard Gardner, Sternberg or Csikzsenmihalyi) feel a bit kitschy now, while theories of creativity that over-rely on techno-optimism are a bit unreal, and can leave you feeling a bit alienated.

There is missing humanistic part of the story. Where is the body, where is the soul? Where is the perspective that connects cognition, emotions, people, products, relationships and culture at large.

While looking for precisely this kind of perspective, I struck gold in an extraordinary essay published in 1954 called, modestly, "Towards a Theory of Creativity." by esteemed psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Unfortunately the whole Rogers essay is not freely available online, but I think it's the best single piece of writing I have come across on creativity.

I was delighted to come across this reference because if anybody can find a way to make creativity feel less like a feel-good nebulous buzzword, and more like a profoundly important part of what it means to be human in a way that is relatively timeless, it is Rogers. If you have never heard of him, imagine somebody with acute insight who believes deeply in people and made a global reputation out of listening extremely well.

Here is what he says about creativity in 1954:

"I maintain that there is a desperate social need for the creative behaviour of creative individuals. It is this which justifies the setting forth of a tentative theory of creativity-the nature of the creative act, the conditions under which it occurs, and the manner in which it may constructively be fostered."

The essay is striking because it feels fresh 60 years after it was published. Consider, for instance:

"Any of the serious criticisms of our culture and its trends may best be formulated in terms of a dearth of creativity...In education we tend to turn out conformists, stereotypes, individuals whose education is "completed," rather than freely creative and original thinkers. In our leisure time activities, passive entertainment and regimented group action are overwhelmingly predominant while creative activities are much less in evidence. In the sciences, there is an ample supply of technicians, but the number who can creatively formulate fruitful hypotheses and theories is small indeed. In industry, creation is reserved for the few-the manager, the designer, the head of the research department-while for the many life is devoid of original or creative endeavour."

So Rogers shares the RSA desire to democratise creativity, and he also seems to share the RSA analysis that creativity is not really optional. And if that was true in 1954, it would appear to be even more so now:

"In a time when knowledge, constructive and destructive, is advancing by the most incredible leaps and bounds into a fantastic atomic age, genuinely creative adaptation seems to represent the only possibility that man can keep abreast of the kaleidoscopic change in his world... a generally passive and culture-bound people cannot cope with the multiplying issues and problems. Unless individuals, groups, and nations can imagine, construct, and creatively revise new ways of relating to these complex changes, the lights will go out. Unless man can make new and original adaptations to his environment as rapidly as his science can change the environment, our culture will perish . Not only individual maladjustment and group tensions, but international annihilation will be the price we pay for a lack of creativity."

In 1954, the threat of annihilation was mostly about the cold war, but there are similar existential threats today, including forms of ecological collapse that were barely imaginable 60 years ago.

The creative process

Rogers even ventures a definition of creativity, but only after a great deal of discussion:

"My definition, then, of the creative process is that it is the emergence in action of a novel relational product, growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, people, or circumstances of his life on the other."

What makes the essay so valuable is that Rogers takes care to present creativity as a fundamental human attribute, and clarifies what is required for creativity to be socially valuable rather than merely something instrumental or profit-driven.

"The mainspring of creativity appears to be the same tendency which we discover so deeply as the curative force in psychotherapy-man's tendency to actualize himself, to become his potentialities. By this I mean the directional trend which is evident in all organic and human life-the urge to expand, extend, develop, mature-the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism, to the extent that such activation enhances the organism or the self."

I love that line: "The urge to expand, extend, develop, mature-the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism." I can hardly think of a better description of what the desire to create feels like on the inside. Creativity is about unfolding and flourishing, not just problem solving and impressing. It's about building, as Roberto Unger puts it, 'a larger life'.

I love that line: "The urge to expand, extend, develop, mature-the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism." I can hardly think of a better description of what the desire to create feels like on the inside.

Moreover, the Rogers article of faith in the creativity of the many, not the few, is the a key premise of the RSA worldview: "(Creativity) exists in every individual, and awaits only the proper conditions to be released and expressed. It is this tendency which is the primary motivation for creativity as the organism forms new relationships to the environment in its endeavour most fully to be itself."

Three key determinants of socially constructive creativity:

But why is it socially valuable? This is a big question: for what reason do we place faith in creativity when it appears, prima facie, to be as likely to be used for selfish destructive ends as generous or generative ones?

Rogers is discerning here, saying that we cannot easily judge whether creativity is constructive because novelty is often inherently subversive at first, and tends to prove its value, or not, over time. So it's not about immediate public approval, because we don't always know creative value when we first see it. Indeed, you might say we are built not to.

Nor can we judge it by the intentions of the creator, because something initially created for good reasons can easily be used to destructive effect and vice versa, as is well known from work on, for instance, splitting the atom. My favourite example of an unexpected benefit is the telephone which initially appeared to further isolate people who were deaf, but later lead to the internet, which of course is hugely beneficial for the same group of people.

Most of the time, we just don't know. So what can we put our faith in?

"We must face the fact that the individual creates primarily because it is satisfying to him, because this behaviour is felt to be self-actualising, and we get nowhere trying to differentiate 'good' and 'bad' purposes in the creative process."

So it is a normative commitment, an article of faith. We say: there is something about the creative process properly understood that is more likely to do good than harm. Rogers goes on to suggest three key determinants of creativity properly understood.

1. Openness to experience

This idea is really about getting beyond defensive reactions and lazy assumptions, but it requires a certain amount of emotional and intellectual stability.

"Certain experiences are prevented from coming into awareness except in distorted fashion. In a person who is open to experience each stimulus is freely relayed through the nervous system, without being distorted by any process of defensiveness....It means the ability to receive much conflicting information without forcing closure on the situation....The more the individual has available to himself a sensitive awareness of all phases of his experience, the more sure we can be that his creativity will be personally and socially constructive."

We can cultivate this kind of openness through education and training, but we are only likely to do so when we deeply appreciate its importance.

2. An internal locus of evaluation

This determinant is fascinating for me personally because it sounds a lot like Kegan's '4th stage' of adult development that was a key premise both of the seminal piece for the Social Brain Centre, Transforming Behaviour Change, and of the RSA's Big Society Report.

Rogers puts it as follows:

"Perhaps the most fundamental condition of creativity is that the source or locus of evaluative judgment is internal. The value of his product is, for the creative person, established not by the praise and criticism of others, but by himself. Have I created something satisfying to me?... If to the person it has the "feel" of being "me in action," of being an actualization of potentialities in himself which heretofore have not existed and are now emerging into existence, then it is satisfying and creative, and no outside evaluation can change that fundamental fact."

Rogers couldn't didn't make this connection to theories of adult development in 1954, mostly because Piagetian models were still thought to apply almost exclusively to childhood. But it is very clear that Rogers thinks there is a 'hidden curriculum' for socially constructive creativity that appears to be developmental in nature. Indeed, by placing 'an internal locus of evaluation' as critical to creativity, he unwittingly poses a question to schools working with creativity, because this kind of stage of development generally occurs well into adulthood.

That doesn't mean that younger people cannot be creative of course (they are, for instance, typically more 'open to experience' than adults) but there is an interesting tension here that might inform educational and cultural interventions designed to foster 'the power to create'. Really, we need to think about this. If the guarantor that creativity is socially valuable rather than merely entertaining in some way is a form of development that occurs after school, what follows for how schools 'teach' or 'facilitate' creativity. I am sure there are good answers, but don't know what they are yet.

3. The ability to toy with elements and concepts

This is a more routine and familiar feature of creativity, but Rogers believes it is also a habit of mind and action that we can place our trust in and it clearly connects to the openness to experience. A simple example of this kind of 'toying', to get beyond functional fixedness is a group of friends on a picnic who find they forgot to bring a knife for the cheese - somebody reached into their wallet, and used a credit card as a knife.

"It is from this spontaneous toying and exploration that there arises the hunch, the creative way of seeing of life in a new and significant way."

It is not immediately clear what follows. Rogers himself suggests his theory is testable in various ways and suggests some experiments for testing his theory, but that's for another day. For now, I hope those who have doubts about the humanistic and spiritual value of creativity, can see a bit more of themselves in the creative process. I know I can.



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