Creativity, Imagination and ‘Finding Your Element’

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and business. His inspiring TED talks have been viewed more than 25 million times and seen by an estimated 250 million people in over 150 countries. In an exclusive interview for the Interalia Magazine he discusses subjects such as the transformative role of creativity and imagination in education and how we can all ‘Find Our Element’.

Richard Bright: What is the biggest misconception people have about creativity?

Ken Robinson: There are several. Probably the biggest is that creativity is an exceptional set of powers that few people have. My argument is that, if you are a human being, it comes with the kit; you’re born with these powers. Creativity is not a single power that only a few people have, it’s a set of capacities that everybody has. There’s an analogy with literacy. With a few exceptions, everybody is born with the capacity to be literate, but not everybody is, because not everybody has learnt what’s involved and practiced the skills that are needed.

Becoming literate is different from learning to speak. Most children learn to speak quite naturally; nobody teaches them formally how to do it. They just pick it up. You couldn’t teach them. It isn’t practical to teach anybody to speak at that age; you coax, encourage and correct them, but you don’t ‘teach’ them to speak in any formal sense. But writing and reading are cultural skills that have to be studied and practiced and usually do need to be taught. Similarly, all people are born with ‘creative capacities’ but not everybody develops the skills that are necessary to fulfil them.

RB: Would you say that creativity is a natural instinct?

KR: It’s a suite of things. I make a broad distinction between imagination and creativity. Imagination is where all this comes from. It’s part of what makes human beings different from the rest of life on Earth. Very few things do, when it comes down to it and we make far too much of the differences. We’re mortal, organic creatures of flesh and blood. We depend for our survival on what the Earth provides. Our life cycles are similar to many other species; we are part of the natural world.  At the same time, it’s evident that there are some differences between humanity and the rest of life on earth. You and I are communicating across continents by Skype. You’re sitting in a building that someone designed and others constructed and you’re surrounded by digital technologies. So am I. We’re using articulate languages. Other creatures aren’t doing that. There aren’t cats and dogs Skyping in some other parts of the building on devices they came up with.

Clearly there are differences in the way we engage with the world around us. One way of describing these differences is to say that human beings have powerful imaginations; that we are born with a capacity to look beyond the immediate sensory environment. As far as we can judge, other creatures are more ‘locked in’ to the here and now than we are.

By imagination, I mean the ability to bring into mind the things that are not present. With imagination, you can step outside the immediate here and now; you can re-visit the past; you can enter the mindsets of other people and try to see the world from their perspective; you can anticipate the future and hypothesise.

Imagination is the wellspring of creativity. But creativity is a step on. You could be imaginative all day long and never do anything. We wouldn’t say, “There’s Richard, he’s tremendously creative. He never does anything but he’s terribly thoughtful. He lays in bed all day, staring at the ceiling.” To be creative you have to do something, it can be anything, but it has to be something. It could be mathematics, publishing a magazine, making a meal, writing a play, designing a building, coming up with a new scientific theory. But it has to be some thing.

I define creativity more specifically as the process of having original ideas that have value. There’s a shorter way of thinking about it, which is that creativity is putting imagination to work. It is ‘applied imagination’. It’s the executive branch of imagination. We’re born with fertile imaginations. Children often lead wonderfully imaginative lives. They create imaginary worlds and dwell in them with tremendous enjoyment and confidence. To move into the more purposeful realm of sustained and serious creativity, we need to acquire the necessary skills and dispositions in the domain in which we are interested, or at least enough to get started.

I had an indirect exchange with Michael Gove last year. He was on BBC Question Time, talking about how creativity is all very well but musicians have to learn all their scales first; they have to master their instruments before they can create. Well, they don’t. There are many wonderful musicians who don’t know one end of a stave from another, and who learnt ‘on the job’. Think of jazz musicians, rock musicians, blues guitarists who learnt through improvisation and trial and error. I’m sure there are many accomplished classical musicians too, who started making music before they understood what they were doing technically and had mastery of their instruments.

Of course, there’s a reciprocal relationship between the skills you need and what you are  you are capable of doing, but you acquire skills more readily when you need them. I don’t play the piano and I can’t be properly creative on it. I could make a row on a piano. I could vent on it for a while, I could do something that I might personally find interesting but I wouldn’t expect anyone else to take an interest in it because I can’t control the medium. Sustained and fulfilling creative work in any domain requires a growing mastery of the discipline itself. But you can get started and learn more as you go.

Children start out being very imaginative but as they get older they may not acquire the skills they need or they may lose the confidence. They become more self-conscious look at what other people are doing and think, “I can’t do that.” Kids will draw unselfconsciously until they’re five, six or seven. By the time they’re ten, they’ll often say, “I can’t draw.” Actually, they probably can’t. I don’t know how to fly a plane. There’s no point in saying, “Oh go on, have a go!” because I can’t. Of course, I could learn how to do it. There’s a difference between saying, “I don’t know how to do it” and “I’m incapable of doing it.” I can’t play the guitar, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, I just can’t at the moment. I could if I put my mind to it.

We all have creative capacities, but they do have to be cultivated. If we neglect or demean them in schools, those natural talents may start to atrophy.

RB: You mentioned drawing and how children, when they are seven or eight, feel that they can’t draw. At some point children are told to draw ‘realistically’ and some then believe they cannot draw because they cannot draw realistically. But they’re still expressing their creativity, although they’re being told, “Well, you can’t draw realistically, therefore you can’t draw.”

KR: Untutored, children’s drawings typically go through various stages of development. Very young children start off with unrecognisable shapes and splodges. As they grow, they start to draw stick people. Then they start adding more details and features. As they go on, they develop some perspective in their drawings. When they get to the age of twelve or thirteen, without tutoring, they don’t get much better. They reach a plateau. Consequently, many adults have the graphic skills of an adolescent. If you asked a typical forty year old they’d probably say, “Well, I can’t really draw.” They’re probably right. They can’t really. If people can’t read, there’s no point in saying that they can when they can’t. But they could, with help.

RB: Going back to imagination. Imagination, as you said, is very tied up with creativity. Ted Hughes, in an essay entitled, ‘Myth and Education’ said, “The real problem comes from the fact that outer world and inner world are interdependent at every moment, we are simply the locus of their collision. And, whether we like it or not, our life is what we are able to make of that collision and struggle. So, what we need is a faculty that embraces both worlds simultaneously, a large, flexible graph, an inner vision which holds wide open like a great theatre, the arena of contention, and pays equal respect to both sides. This really is imagination.” Basically, he’s saying that imagination and creativity involves this dynamic process of negotiation between the inner and outer world. Would you agree with this statement? That there’s a negotiation between the inner and outer? If you’re too ‘inner’, you can be psychotic. If you’re just ‘outer’, you become less empathetic.

KR: Yes, absolutely. One of the consequences of our powers of imagination and creativity is that we don’t live in the world as directly as other creatures seem to do. We live in a world of ideas and conceptions, of representations. We don’t just live in the world, we have ideas about it, we think about it, we theorise about it, we place frameworks across it, we see it through veils of conceptions, through our languages, our cultures and our ideologies. Some of the most bitter battles and murderous conflicts in the world are over ideas, not property. They are between people avidly contesting their own views of the world.

We do live in two worlds. It was nicely put some years ago in a book by Robert Witkin, called ‘The Intelligence of Feeling’.  He said there’s a world that exists, whether or not we exist – a world of other people and objects, a world that was there before we came into it as individuals. There’s another world that exists only because we exist; it’s the world that came into being when we did, it’s the world of our own private thoughts, feelings, perceptions and motivations, a world in which, as R.D. Laing once said, there’s only one set of footprints. We only know the outer world through the inner world, through our various senses and the ideas we have about it.

Education systems are pre-occupied with this outer world, with the events that go on in it and with information about almost to the complete neglect of students’ inner lives. There has to be balance between the inner world of feeling and spirituality, and the outer world of events, ideas and information.

One way, of distinguishing arts and sciences is that the natural sciences especially are focused on understanding the outer world in its own terms. Science is objective in the sense that people aim to produce observations and theories, which can be independently validated by other people using agreed criteria and procedures. In these ways, the assertions of scientists can be challenged, refuted or verified by other scientists. They are objective in that sense.

Objectivity isn’t the same as truth. Ideas and theories that people agree on with complete, objective certainty may turn out in the light of better information and analysis to be completely untrue. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t objective in the first place. They may have been subjected to all the normal criteria of objective judgement: they just turned out to be wrong.

What artists typically aim to do is not only to describe the outer world in terms of itself but of its relationship with our inner worlds: that point of collision that Ted Hughes talks about, where these two worlds intersect. “This is how it looks to me, this is how I experience it. This is how I feel about this.” This doesn’t mean that the arts are not objective, they can be completely objective, but they report on different sorts of truth. They live in that intersection of the inner and outer worlds and they’re all the more important for that.

Creativity isn’t just about the arts. When people say they’re not creative, often what they mean is that they’re not artistic; they don’t play an instrument or draw or dance. But creativity is a feature of all areas of human intelligence, and it operates often in very similar ways in different disciplines. There are many synergies between the arts and sciences, for example. They may answer to different criteria, the purposes may be different, but the interests between them and the processes they draw on are more alike than is commonly understood. Education often divides disciplines and tries to keep them apart but out in the world they constantly flow together.

RB: The statement you made, about defining creativity as a process of having original ideas that have value, the term ‘value’ is loaded, it’s subject to interpretation and misinterpretation. People often associate creativity with the individual, but there’s also the social dimension as well. Would you agree that there’s the value personally for the individual, but also there’s a social dimension?

KR: All three parts of the definition are important. It’s a process and not an event. In any creative process you work to shape the idea or object you are producing. It often takes a different form in the end from what you had in mind when you started out. Being creative is a process of successive approximations. It’s a material process too. The materials being used are not incidental to how the work evolves but central to it.

Some artistic movements, for example, have been spurred by new technologies and materials. Impressionism was borne forward with the development of pre-mixed and synthetic paints, which gave painters a different and more vivid palette than before. The availability of these paints in tin tubes also allowed them to work more easily and quickly outdoors.  The instruments of the symphony orchestra are a tool kit. The development of these instruments intermingled at every turn with the evolution of Western music itself. But these are tools. A cupboard full of these instruments has no music in it until musicians breathe life into them.

So, creativity is a process in which the work you are producing evolves in the making. Sometimes people come up with a finished work straightaway, but it’s more the exception than the rule. It’s said that John Milton never revised ‘Paradise Lost’. He woke up every morning and dictated sections of it to his daughters. They took it down and took it off to the publishers and that was that. It’s much more often the case that creative work takes shape with successive revisions, false starts, edits and changes in the process of making it.

Creativity is about producing something new.  At the most basic level, it means producing something that didn’t exist before. To count as creative, the work doesn’t have to be original to the whole of humanity. It doesn’t have to be quantum theory, or Beethoven’s Ninth. It does have to be new to the maker at least and not just a copy or a repetition.  Value judgements are important here too. In judging our own and other people’s creative work, we constantly apply values to them. Is it any good? Is it worth it? Does it add up to anything? Does it matter? In any creative process, there is a constant questioning, “Does that feel right? Is that OK? Is that it?”

Then, when the work is out in the world, people bring their own judgments to it and decide whether they think it’s any good. That’s true in the sciences and the arts. Most of our judgments about original work are about value. It does of course then raise the question, “Whose values?” There’s no single answer to that. What we do know is that a lot of original work, in all sorts of fields, was vilified when it first appeared. Some of it was deified later on when people got the hang of it; some turned out to be nonsense after all.

Original work is often misunderstood at the time, because it doesn’t sit well with dominant cultural values. Some people start by thinking, “This is rubbish” Then, if it has some enduring quality, people think of it differently because it shifts the value system.

You can’t really have a conversation about arts, or creativity in many fields without encountering value judgements. I don’t know why people shy away from that. Of course, you should be prepared to defend value judgements and to say which values are being applied and why. I think people are sometimes nervous of making value judgements because of a ‘scientistic’ culture that demands quantitative data as proof of judgement. Not all judgements can or should be quantified in the same way.

RB: I want to come on to education. We talked about the creative process, where one is working with limitations. Stravinsky once wrote that the more constraint one imposes, the more one frees oneself. John Cleese talks about creativity as a way of operating, as opposed to a talent, and he imposes time restraints on his creative output during the day. Anish Kapoor talks about limiting failure time, working with failure and reducing that failure time. That idea of working with limitations, self-imposed, or imposed by others, is actually part of the creative process. There are no hard and fast rules about creativity, it can come from desperation, deadlines or daydreaming. So, getting on to education, can creativity be educated? Or does education actually jeopardise creativity?

KR: Limitations and constraints can have an important role in creativity. David Rockwell, the architect, was recently commissioned to design a theatre for the TED conference, which now takes place in a large, rather featureless convention hall at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The actual space is like an aircraft hanger. His commission was to design a theatre that could house twelve hundred people with a sense of intimacy with the stage and each other. The TED conference is only in the space for one week a year and the theatre has to be assembled relatively quickly on site and then dismantled and stored for the next year. He designed a wooden theatre, a little like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London It’s a beautiful structure that creates a vibrant, intimate space. The strict constraints on space, portability and materials drove the design.

Creativity is not all about freewheeling and freefalling. It’s about control and rigour too. I’m doing some work at the moment with Disney and the ‘Imagineers’. They are brilliantly talented in all sorts of ways, and deeply disciplined in what they’re doing. So, can education help to promote creativity? Well, yes.

Joi Ito runs the media lab at MIT. He said recently, “Learning is what you do for yourself, and education is what other people do to you.” That’s a nice way to put it. Education is about learning. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that but it is. It’s like saying the health service is about health. It is, but in practice all kinds of people go into hospital for one condition and get sick or die of another that they contracted in the hospital. Too often kids love to learn until they go to school because the conditions in schools can militate against it.

There are various ways in which education gets in the way of creativity in particular. One is that most education systems actually do very little to cultivate it. If it happens at all, it happens incidentally through the efforts of individual teachers who are impassioned about it. Politicians talk a good game about creativity, but they don’t do what’s needed at the policy level to make it flourish. Often enough, they do the exact opposite.

Schools can frustrate creativity too, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately, in how they’re organised and operate. Education consists of four interweaving strands; there’s the curriculum, which is what we want people to learn; pedagogy, which is how we aim to help them do it; assessment, which is how we report on how they’re getting on; and the overall culture of the school, which gives strong, if tacit messages about priorities through the physical environment and algorithms of the day.

Broadly speaking, I distinguish between general creativity and personal creativity. There are all kinds of ways to help people think more productively and generate fresh ideas. Edward de Bono has written a lot about this and produced some great strategies like the ‘six thinking hats’ and other practical techniques for generating and sifting through ideas and for organising groups to be more productive. There are other proprietary systems too, like Synectics and Design Thinking, which offer their own techniques. These sorts of techniques can be applied to anything from designing a new car to planning your holidays. I think that schools should routinely teach the skills of general creative thinking.

By personal creativity, I mean areas in which, as individuals, we have a particular calling. I wrote about this in the Element books. For some people it may be chemistry or basketball; others come alive when they’re working with animals, others when they’re dancing or writing. There’s a very personal dimension to these forms of creative work because they fulfil personal talents and passions.

Education militates against general creativity because schools don’t teach the skills and processes of creative thinking. It inhibits personal creativity because a narrow curriculum limits opportunities for students to develop their personal talents and passions or doesn’t allow them enough time to pursue them. There are pedagogical issues too. Teachers themselves are very constrained by the testing demands in schools and not enough of them know how to facilitate the creative process.

Methods of assessment also have to be compatible with promoting creative work. When I was chairman of the Department of Arts Education at Warwick University, I was pressing to have the practical work of students in theatre, dance, visual arts and music, accepted for assessment in its original forms. The general unit of assessment at the time was a two thousand-word essay. Even students that were doing art had to submit essays, not paintings. I remember a conversation with another member of the examinations who said, “There’s no objective way of judging these works” I said, “How do you judge a paper in mathematics?” He said, “We give them to mathematicians.” I replied, “Let’s give works of art to artists and get them to assess it. Let’s give novels to people who understand about novels.” The next issue was comparability. I was asked how we could compare paintings to a two thousand-word essay. I suggested that as a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, the students should probably submit two pictures …

If schools are serious about promoting creativity in schools, they have to look at the curriculum, teaching and assessment and at the physical environment in which students are learning. They have to understand and encourage the conditions in which both general and personal creativity actually flourish.

RB: Certain languages, the written language, the visual language, mathematical language, are sometimes non-transferable. An example would be that, in mathematics, you can describe multi-dimensional space quite easily – up to twelve dimensions – in the visual language you can only imply it in four dimensions; you cannot go beyond that. Visual language is a system of communication, to encode concepts, information and meaning, using visual elements only, no other ‘language’ is needed or will suffice. It’s non-transferable.

KR: Richard Feynman talked about that. As well as being a great physicist, he was also a musician. He said, if you want to understand quantum theory you need to know mathematics. You can’t understand it otherwise. You can approximate it, you can get some rough idea of what we’re talking about, but you can’t engage in it without mathematics. You can’t get there through music.

Different areas of understanding need different modes of discourse. If somebody wants to know that you love them write them a poem, don’t give them an equation. A major argument for the arts in schools is that there are some forms of experience that that we can’t fully understand without them.

RB: My last question. Is finding one’s element a quest?

KR: Yes it is. I write about this in Finding Your Element. A quest is a particular type of journey. If you’re in Bath and decide to go to London, you know where it is and the odds are pretty high you’re going to get there. A quest is a different sort of journey, where you set out purposefully, but may not have a clear idea of the destination or if you will make it. Finding your element is a two-way quest. It’s an inner journey to understand more about yourself, your talents, and the things that engage and interest you. In that sense it’s a spiritual journey: the sense in which you are in high or low spirits, in which your energy is enriched, or depleted. If you’re in your element, you get energy from what you do. Doing things you don’t care for tends to take energy from you.

Finding your element is not just a journey into yourself. It’s a quest to discover more of yourself in the world around you. You may not know what’s in you, until you put yourself to the test in the outer world. It’s that interaction that Ted Hughes talks about.

In Finding Your Element I set out some practices and techniques for this two-way quest. I also argue that this isn’t only or necessarily about what you do for a living, it’s about what sort of life you want to lead. I spoke at an event a few years ago with HRH the Dalai Lama. He said lots of wonderful things. One was, “To be born at all is a miracle. So what are you going to do with your life?” I think that’s exactly the right question.

The odds of our being here individually are very small and we’re not here for very long. Many people spend so much of their time just coping and getting through it. According to the World Health Organisation, by 2020 the second largest cause of disability among human beings, will be depression. Education does little to help here. In high-performing systems on standardised tests, like South Korea and Singapore, kids are being driven to states of high anxiety and often suicide because of the pressure of competition.

Dealing with these sorts of issues is about understanding that education is a personal process and that there are certain conditions under which human beings flourish, and others under which we do not. That’s what the Element books are really about.

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One Response to “Creativity, Imagination and ‘Finding Your Element’”

  1. James Harpur
    James Harpur
    June 7, 2019 at 5:36 pm #

    Very interesting interview. It raised many issues for me, for example the value of day-dreaming, something schools are understandably wary about (‘Stop looking out of the window, Harpur!’). But entering what Ted Hughes called ‘the sacred trance’ is the sine qua non for writing poetry and I would be stuck without it. Indeed, JK Rowling is said to have conceived Harry Potter on a long train journey.

    Sir Ken mentioned that creativity was about ‘producing something new’, which got me thinking about the Eastern Orthodox tradition of icon painting, where submission to the tradition and replicating age-old images is the gold standard of the painter (not ‘originality’ as such). I think of imagination as a deepening of reality, or entering into the abyss of the instant to the point where you ‘see’ beyond the surface and reach the heart. As Basho said, if you want to write about the bamboo you have to become it first (or words to that effect).

    Finally, there’s a Daoist text about how ancient trees on a hillside all have different cracks, crannies and fissures and that when the wind blows each tree emits a different range of sounds; there is one source of creativity or imagination, but each of us has idiosyncratic ways of expressing it.

    James Harpur

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