Creative resolutions

January 7, 2014 by
Filed under: The RSA 

Although they generally don’t work, many of us are trying to stick to New Year’s resolutions. My own is to have an alcohol-free January (although the decision not to join Cancer Research’s commendable ‘Dryathalon’ hints at my ambivalence).

Resolutions reflect different types of personal aspiration. Broadly speaking, in life we pursue pleasure, control and virtue. This triptych has some resemblance to both the categories of cultural theory (individualism, hierarchy and solidarity) and the Freudian model of personality (id, ego, super-ego). The good life well lived involves a benign balance between these impulses, a goal made challenging by them tending to be in both practical and psychological tension.

This framework came to mind reading a great blog post from my colleague, Adam Lent. In it the Director of the RSA’s Action and Research Centre composes a powerful hymn to creativity. Adam’s post also reflects an internal debate we have been having here at the RSA about how to put creativity at the front and centre of everything we do.

How might a commitment to creativity – which Adam sees as the core competency for the 21st century citizen – be manifest across our three types of personal aspiration?

In relation to pleasure, prizing creativity might lead to an emphasis on participation and production over spectatorship and consumption. And, even where cultural appreciation is more passive, the disciple of creativity would seek out experiences which demand imagination and intellectual engagement.

What about creativity and the drive for control? In terms of our own lives, an emphasis on creativity may mean valuing autonomy and choice over other aspects of control such as security or the possession of assets. Second, in relation to others, creative control may be more about the flexible and relational idea of influence rather than the heavy weight of coercive power.

Finally, in terms of virtue, the creative approach will focus on ultimate ends and the search for new solutions rather than simply the observance of existing rules or duties.

Presented in this way the cause of greater creativity certainly seems one the RSA should rally to. Indeed we already do. Quite apart from the longevity and strength of our work on design, RSA reports have, for example, argued for a greater emphasis on participation in publicly funded arts provision, championed the autonomy offered by entrepreneurship, particularly of a socially-minded form, and argued for a more relational, co-productive approach to public services. Creativity has also been an important lecture theme and next week I am chairing the distinguished thinker, writer and former politician Moses Naim who argues convincingly that old forms of authority and power are being challenged by more adaptive and innovative insurgents.

Yet, creativity’s strengths are not unalloyed. Take virtue: as I get older I become more aware of the wisdom (the creativity of the past) embedded in traditions and conventions. Equally, I can be dispirited by those people who seem determined to develop their own creative solutions to social problems when they could almost certainly do more good by lending their weight to similar existing ways of doing things (Freud’s phrase ‘the narcissism of small differences’ springs to mind). Sometimes in the face of crisis, threat or short lived opportunity it is creaking old power not subtle new models of influence that are needed. And, whilst high culture and home cuisine may be more creative ways of spending our time, surely we can also be sometimes excused a take away pizza and reruns of The Good Life?

I don’t need Adam’s eloquent prose to convince me that creativity is an increasingly important ingredient for the good society and the fulfilled life. But no ingredient is sufficiently nutritional on its own; what matters is how it adds to the mix. Whether order, efficiency or justice in the public domain or satiation, duty and rest in our private lives, the question is how we enhance creativity without dismissing other qualities, goals or needs.

If creativity is to be our lodestar we will also need an account of its origins. Broadly speaking the argument here has tilted in two ways. Partly thanks to the ten thousand hours rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, we tend to see higher levels of creative talent as the result of effort rather than luck or innate ability. As Edison said ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration’. Also, historical and geographical analysis suggests that creativity is socially contingent – certain times, places and organisations are more creativity-inducing than others.

These conclusions highlight an important and easily overlooked truth – the road to creativity is not paved with creativity. Thousands of hours of routine practice provide the foundation for creative talent. As I pointed out in an Observer column last year some of the most creative artistic directors in our theatres rely on the more humdrum skills of their commercial directors. Many great policy innovations founder on a failure to get right the grubby politics or grinding task of delivery.

In his post Adam referred to JS Mill’s enthusiasm for originality. Another Millian idea is worth considering – obliquity (the subject of an excellent book by John Kay). As a utilitarian Mill saw the pursuit of happiness as the greatest goal of human life and social policy but towards the end of his life, he argued it was best achieved indirectly: ‘this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness – on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.’ 

Is the spark of creativity too partly an ‘obliquitous’ phenomenon? If so, as the RSA champions ‘the power to create’ in 2014, our own resolution must be to address intruiging questions about the generators of that power and how it can best be exploited for social benefit.




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  • Bob

    “As a utilitarian Mill saw the pursuit of happiness as the greatest gaol of human life” was this a typo or was Mill a closet Buddhist?
    Happy New Year (at least you know I read to the end!)

  • Gaia Marcus

    Interesting post Matthew. In my reaction-to-Adam’s-blog piece I suggest that people’s social connections might be the missing link in going from participants to actors. I suggest that the perception of owning this power to create – the power to be an actor in your life and not merely a participant – is not as widely distributed as the ability to create is.

    People often need a push/spark/catalyst to see themselves as creators because the act of doing, of interacting, of creating implies some level of believing that you are worth it. I believe that social connections could be that spark

  • Matthew Mezey

    I don’t mean to quibble but…

    Malcolm Gladwell may have popularised Ericsson’s 20-year-old research finding that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert – but the most recent evidence seems to have overturned that view.

    Take a look at ‘Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?’

    Some snippets from that paper:
    “The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so *despite* copious practice”.

    “Deliberate practice does not explain all, nearly all, or even most of the variance in performance in chess and music, the two most widely studied domains in expertise research.”

    “One player in Gobet and Campitelli’s (2007) chess sample took 26 years of serious involvement in chess to reach a master level, while another player took less than 2 years to reach this level.”

    The authors look at other factors that need to be included: starting age, intelligence, personality and genes.

    Research doesn’t support “the egalitarian view that anyone can achieve most anything he or she wishes, with enough hard work”, unfortunately…

    The good news though: “The silver lining, we believe, is that when people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and of the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities, they may gravitate towards domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”

    Back to creativity…

    One way that the RSA is in a great position to foster creativity is by building on its social network analysis/stimulation work.

    Prof Lynda Gratton uses such network analysis strongly in her great book about how to nurture creative ‘Hot Spots’ across organisations – it is all about enabling those ‘moments when people are working together in exceptionally creative and collaborative ways’.

    Here’s the first chapter of her book:

    I think she might still be based down the road at Somerset House. I’ve been meaning to try to invite her to visit us, talk with Gaia Marcus about network analysis, or suchlike…

    I see Gaia has commented, while I was writing this – spotting some of these connections between network theory and creativity.

    The understanding of values (eg Pat Dade’s ‘Values Modes’) that has been used in some of Gaia’s work is also oerhaps crucial to understanding which citizens will want to creatively redesign services and which won’t.

    At least this is what is argued in this report: ‘Changing Behaviours – Opening a new conversation with the citizen’ by Nigel Keohane (New Local Government Network):

    It finds that people with Pioneer ‘Values Modes’ are motivated by ‘creativity, novelty and self-choice’ etc.

    But the majority of the UK is made up of ‘Prospectors’ (motivated by achievement, status as leaders, adventure and power); and Settlers (motivated by conformity, security and safety)…

    Encouraging those people to develop their power to create will require a different approach than the one that works best for reaching ‘Pioneers’ …

  • Daniel Snell

    Hello Matthew and Happy New Year and to all here also.

    I should be working. This is distracting.

    Actually, my work is a kind of act of creativity. I’m writing a programme for young people to help them think and act creatively in response to the challenges of their life – where they come from, what they know (or don’t) and how to overcome those obstacles.

    But I read your blog and then other peoples comments and I felt I should write something as a creative expression. Which is a compliment to a creative expression (like yours and theirs) and I think the easiest way to get the creative juices flowing is to respond to someone else’s creative expressions, rather than starting from a empty blank canvas as it were.

    Creativity is such a loaded and interesting subject (i feel like people fight for ownership or right over it) and that some people are more creative or there are better expressions of creativity (a hierarchy of creative expressions). However, my feelings are that creativity is a central way of being and central to all things human.

    I think our relationship to creativity defines how we feel and relate to it regardless of our creative ability, which would be impossible to measure or compare anyways, as almost everything we do probably comes from some creative source or genesis, however controlled or perverse.

    For instance, I found your blog both controlling like you were wanting to own the brand or a deeper understanding of creativity, like somehow investigating it, one might truly understand what creativity really means – a sort of intellectual land grab for creativity and the fuel that might lurk untapped within. I also was stimulated to think about creativity for creativity’s sake, which made me think creatively about creativity. So bravo.

    I think we are all more creative on the edge of other peoples expressions of creativity.

    I hope everyone’s 2014 is a very creative one.

  • Matthew Taylor

    Well, if a subject is judged by the quality of the comments it generates then we are certainly on to something with this creativity thing. I am paticularly grateful for Matthew’s links, for Daniel’s warning about looking like we want to ‘own’ creativity and Gaia’s point about confidence and connection being the big inhibitors to the creative leap.

  • Josh W

    My experience of creativity is that it comes from periods containing a lack of urgency. In the urgent moments I seem creative by applying frameworks that were previously developed by arbitrary musing.

    So I think I’d agree, creativity seems to me more and more about creating a toolbox of different insight-directions optimised according to their own strange dynamics. And then about an effective search procedure to retrieve them at the appropriate moment.

    If creativity is considered as a factor of surprise, then it is best to hide this toolbox and bring it out for show periodically; like a fireworks display collected over months, the revelations of each unexpected approach combine together to create a spectacle of creativity.

    But, if the core of creativity is actually a library of insight, then in terms of actual problem solving, it would be better to encourage people to share them in a more static way, so that the means is not obscured by the effect. Various observations about the way that light falls in a stairwell, or the way that cut wood ages, that underwrite the act of design. This requires a framework of value that appreciates subtlety and diversity in perception, the capacity to see from a variety of frameworks, and to sharpen each of those views into something distinct.

    This is simply so that any collective of shared creativity can recognise itself, so that people can distinguish contributions to it and develop on them. In practice, as in old art movements, it’s often easy to start with common grounds of creativity focused on a certain framework of exploration and structured perception, but have this be slowly taken apart by the varying amount of success it’s members have in utilising that toolset or language.

    To put that a little more simply, people are happy to be a part of the same art movement until some members of the movement start to make more money than seems fair given their contribution to that central pool of creativity, or even more importantly, some people start to fall behind in income and continue to struggle despite their contributions to other’s success. This then puts an obscuring battle of marketing spin into that definition of common creativity, with various consequences.

    In short, it seems to me that if work can be done in helping to define creativity in awareness of this conflict but behind a veil of ignorance, then when such conflicts arise in creative groups, a framework will exist beyond that of the cohesive collective or the singular author that will help people to negotiate this without breaking up their otherwise very creative groups.

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