As a child, I had not just one, but seven imaginary horses. Each were named and had their own unique character. Gerlof or Valentino were the ‘grown-up horses’ in my little herd: strong, noble and fearless. Oscar was a fast, nimble and quick horse. My herd contained two grey twin ponies, Snowy and Snoopy, quirky little trouble-makers. A mare and foal (whose names for the life of me I can’t remember!) completed my troop of imaginary equine companions. While not many children can claim to have kept company with a troop of imaginary horses, up to 65 percent of all children have make-believe friends at some point in their young lives. Such children, it is said, tend to be more imaginative, have a richer vocabulary, are able to entertain themselves, and get along better with their peers.
Harnessing creativity: adulting in the real world
Sadly, though, as an adult I no longer have imaginary horses. In a landmark test in 1968, the psychologist George Land tested the creativity of adults and children, and found that only 2% of adults demonstrated creative capability, compared to 98% of five year olds. It seems that adults lose the capacity to be imaginative and creative in life. This is an issue, as creativity is emerging as critical to the future of work. In his book, Knowledge Solutions, organizational leadership theorist and former head of knowledge management at the Asian Development Bank, Oliver Serrat suggests that “harnessing creativity” is critical in adapting to the emerging knowledge economies and “innovation is an imperative for organizational survival”. Creativity enables the ‘out of the box’ thinking and capacity to problem-solve that responds well to an unknown future. For this reason, creativity is considered to be one of the most important capacities one can bring, in the future workforce. Organisations that support creative endavour “recruit and retain highly skilled and trained personnel, give them access to knowledge, and then encourage and enable them to think and act innovatively”, suggests Serrat. In short, good organisations and workplaces recognise the capacity for individuals to ‘think differently’ within the context of the workplace, and provide personnel with the capacity to express this in their work.
I don’t fully share Serrat’s optimism that contemporary workplaces will suddenly affirm the creative expressions of individuals staff. As I have written elsewhere, there is a gendered dimension to creativity, particularly as it relates to the workplace. If creativity is an important skill for the future, there may be a social perception that readily acknowledges this attribute in men, but overlooks its presence in women or ‘women’s work’. What is valued as ‘creative production’ is therefore socially determined, and I am less sanguine about Serrat’s suggestion that organisations need simply affirm the capacity for individual personnel to express their creativity through innovation.
But there is another dimension to creativity that is easily overlooked in contemporary discussions that link creativity to the future of work. Serrat defines creativity as “the mental and social process […] of generating ideas, concepts, and associations”. Innovation in turn is defined as the “exploitation of new ideas”; it is “a profitable outcome of the creative process”. Reading between the lines, creativity in the workplace that does not lead to innovation and is not profitable, is therefore not valuable. Or at least, it does not count in economic terms, which is the only measurement that ultimately counts in the contemporary workplace. This means that creativity expressed for its own sake, is rejected as a valid contribution to society. It’s a depressing thought.
So I find myself asking – is creative expression as an adult meaningless or a waste of time when there is no economic output? Of course I don’t want to think so! But I think there is a way to redirect what philosophers call this means-end thinking of what is a deeply human expression. The fact that we are able to create has value in and of itself. And indeed, the workings of the imagination itself cannot simply be fully harnessed and directed towards some kind of marketable end.
I noticed something curious in my first reading of Serrat’s writing on creativity and the work place. I noticed that he would use the word ‘creative’, where ‘imagination’ might more appropriate. It can be seen in the way he talks about creativity as being of “the mind” and “generating ideas, concepts and associations”. According to the Oxford dictionary, creativity means “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness” (italics mine). The etymology of creative is to have the function of creating, which itself emerges from creatus (Latin) “to bring into being”. Other terms include, to bring forth, to produce, to procreate. That is, creativity is something that emerges from within (one’s imagination, one’s mind – whatever you want to call it) into the world. What is created can be seen, touched, felt, heard or experienced in some way. Creativity is effectively the imagination expressed into something, which may or may not have an economic value in terms of ‘innovation’. Serrat does in fact occasionally use the word ‘imagination’ and connects this to innovation. But he much prefers the word ‘creativity’, which along with creative appears 170 times throughout his book, compared to the 11 times ‘imagination’ is mentioned. So why does Serrat link creativity with something that happens ‘in the mind’ and is then expressed as an innovative product? Why doesn’t Serrat use the term ‘imagination’ throughout his book, whenever he refers to the capacity for individuals to exercise a mental capacity that enable us to ‘think differently’?
The imagination as ‘mistress of falsity’
After doing a bit more research, I discovered that the word creativity came to be associated with imagination from 1816, through Wordsworth, whilst ‘creative writing’ , which we would associate with writing from the imagination, emerges in 1848. Chiara Bottici, in a book with the rather forbidding title of Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond Imagination and the Imaginary, provides a an account of the word ‘imagination’ itself. She suggests that until the 18th century, the word imagination (imaginatio) played a role in understanding what we would call today the ‘real world’. But gradually the word ‘imagination’ came to be separated from ‘rational’ knowledge about the real world, and became associated with the ‘unreal world’ of art and poetry. A view emerged that only reason could be trusted to give us reliable information about the external world, and imagination had no place in this new formation of knowledge. Indeed, it was explicitly not to be trusted.
“Imagination is the deceptive part in man, the mistress of error and falsehood.”
Blaise PascalBlaise Pascal
The 17th century philosopher, inventor and theologian, Blaise Pascal is emblematic of this, when he describes imagination as a ‘mistress of errors and falsity’, an enemy of reason, which in Pascal’s view, was a sign of ‘the irremediably flawed nature of human beings, of the original sin that prevents us from simply following the sources of truth: reason and the senses’, writes Bottici. Pascal’s view can be seen as typical of a change in the collective understanding of the role of imagination. A change that continues to be reflected in our contemporary understanding of the relationship between knowledge based on reason, and the work of the imagination. The former belongs to understanding and managing the ‘real world’ and includes the world of work, the latter belongs to the ‘unreal world’ of art and poetry. Creativity is welcomed in the real world not in relation to art and poetry, but only in terms of ‘innovative’ (read profitable) real world outcomes. And only in these terms is creativity now judged to be ‘reasonable’ as a form of adult work in the world.
I suspect the ghost of Pascal lingers in how we, as adults, view the imagination today. Imagination cannot be given free rein and expression into the world. Because imagination cannot be understood as sense information, it will continue to be mistrusted in a world that primarily sees ‘real’ knowledge as emerging from sensory data. The contemporary workplace in particular runs on the tracks of measurable outputs or outcomes. All the better if these can be predicted in some way. In this context, it is better to speak of creativity (even when we mean the function of the imagination) and link it firmly to innovation, which can be evaluated and judged in the ‘real world’.
The Flight of the Imagination
Back to my little herd of imaginary horses. Imaginary horses continued to enrich my life, even after I started to receive lessons at the local riding school. But there came a point when the imaginary was fully replaced by the ‘real’. My imaginary herd could not compete with the flesh and blood horses that began to enter my life as a teenager – a revolving door of characters because I was actually never allowed to have a herd of horses! The reality of my ‘real life’ set its own limits: need for pasture, costly hay, vet and farrier bills, and of course endless manure. Somewhat eerily now that I look back, I did end up with two grey personality-packed ponies in ‘real life’. These were not twins, but my mother and I brought them together, on something of a whim, at a horse auction, rescued from the clutches of a nefarious buyer representing the local abattoir. They came to us, rejected, unwanted and un-named, and my mother and I named them Gentil (kind) and Cherie (sweetheart). From neglected personalities, they soon revealed themselves to be full of quirks and idiosyncrasies.
I’m not sure what happened to my little herd of imaginary horses. Perhaps they quietly left the narrowing fields of my imagination, wandering away in search of the bright, open fields of another young person’s wondering, imaginative mind. Today I allow like my imagination to take flight, I may hear a whisper, an echo of their spirit that nurtures the many ways I think, write, create and interact with the world today. It can be seen every time I express ideas in tangible ways into the world, whether through art, craft, design, innovation or sometimes just working out what to have for dinner. What I do know very clearly is that my imaginary horses emerged quite naturally in a creative and fertile period of my life. I therefore can’t suddenly invite these imaginary companions back into my life and demand that they now play my very adult game of producing ‘innovative’ ideas or products. Imaginary horses refuse to be ‘harnessed’ and directed towards some preconceived end, because that’s simply not how the imagination works.
How do I then approach the world of imagination and creativity as an adult? I think we can ‘play’ in the space of our imagination, and practice bringing this into the world even as adults. But this requires that we respect the freedom of the imagination and its creative expressions. It is not so much putting the imagination into ‘harness’, as it is inviting and welcoming its presence into our lives through paying daily attention in forms of play. This of course doesn’t guarantee that we’ll become more proficient ‘problem-solvers’ as a happy consequence. But it does mean we may well find ourselves better able to better reframe what seem to be insurmountable problems of adult life. That is, our sens of ‘reality’ itself is expanded, and possibility once again emerges in the midst of feed bills, vet fees and the endless horse poop that is ‘real life’ as an adult surviving in the world.