From ‘Good Life’ to ‘Creative Life’

Ever since humanity first started to philosophise, one of the most lingering and important questions to set our neurons ablaze and make us look at ourselves and the world has been a simple one: ‘What is the good life?’ Though the answer to this simple question has changed over time, it has been a persistent object of exploration for everybody from Aristotle to the Stoics to modern scientists or even part-time ‘philosophers’ like yours truly (check out Personal Revolutions if you’d like to know what I’m talking about).

Really, when we consider the fact that time is precious and that we are each fleeting and transitory creatures, the question of how to live the best possible life is one of the most important. Anything that can help us to live a better life is of imminent practicality and so philosophy in this area has added great value to the collective wisdom and knowledge of humanity over the years.

Perhaps due to the subjectivity of life itself, different thinkers have answered the ‘good life’ question differently. Socrates, who first raised the question of the good life under the concept of eudemonia (translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘wellbeing’, but etymologically ‘good spirit’) put forward that the good life was a life of virtue, though of course virtue can change from one generation or culture to the next and so this implies that happiness is always contingent. I suppose that also goes to show that the ‘good life’ isn’t necessarily the ‘right life’, but that’s another topic.

Plato came along next and essentially argued that the good life is about wholeness, arguing that the good man is at peace within himself and the ‘bad’ is at war with an internal state of chaos raging inside himself. Aristotle suggested that as man is a ‘rational beast’, the good life is one that involves a rational course of action towards one’s true and highest potential. Next up was Epicurus who argued that the only life worth living was a life of pleasure and so we should all become hedonists.

Though these are very succinct and simplified versions of how these great thinkers answered the question of the ‘good life’, the point being made is that there could be as many answers to the question as there are human beings, especially if we are to focus on the externalities of life, such as the virtues espoused or worshiped by our culture or the things that are available to us in order to experience pleasure (if we take the hedonistic path, as do many of us in the modern world).

Luckily for us, the Stoics entered the arena after the aforementioned philosophers had given the ‘good life’ question a go, reminding us that whatever happens outside of ourselves is irrelevant in terms of the good life – all that we really need is the ability to control our emotions, live with reason, and to cultivate an inner attitude that is in alignment with human nature and the reality of the world. Easy.

My own project, Personal Revolutions, attempts to take everything that we now ‘know’ about the human condition and the good life and breaks it down into constituent parts. These parts are broken down into spectrums so as to be aligned with a reality that is painted in shades of grey instead of black and white, and helps us to look at the ‘character’ required to live the good life as autonomous beings in an interdependent system (examples of spectrums are Responsibility/Victimhood or Wholeness/Fragmentation). As the Stoics rightly, in my opinion, put forward, it all begins within and so if we want to have a good life out and about in the world, we have to create a good life for ourselves on the ‘inside’.

If we take this as a starting point, and work along the idea that to cultivate a good life is to cultivate ourselves, we realise that this is not a problem of acceptance or of picking and choosing certain things to bring into or extract from our lives, but it is a problem of what we create within ourselves. It isn’t a question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but a question of what we either do create or don’t create. Being precedes doing and so to create a good life for ourselves we must learn to create the best version of ourselves in the world.

To create something you have to know what you are working with and this is why it’s important that we look at the reality of the human condition and human situation so as to figure out how to build or design our lives within its constraints. What is the ‘reality’ of the human condition? Well, though many are sure to disagree, the way that it seems to be from my understanding is that our inner world affects our perception of the outer world, that our being precedes our doing, and that the world is seen never as it is and always as we are. We must learn what we are so that we can build upon it should we choose to do so.

As Schopenhauer (aka ‘Arty Schoppy’) says in the very first line of his magnum opus, the World as Will and Representation, ‘The world is my idea’. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept and you first read it, you may think that Schoppy is suggesting that there is nothing ‘out there’ and that the world only exists in your head. Though he kind of is saying this to some extent, he is really saying that between whatever is out there and your experience of it are the ideas that you carry of the world, the concepts that you use to understand them, and the limits of your perception in terms of time, space, and causality. When you die, so does the world, because you’re carrying the whole of it within you. And so, again: if you want a ‘good life’ you have to create it from within yourself.

The Universality of Creativity

So that was a very nice summary of the philosophical question of the ‘good life’, but what does it have to do with creativity? Well, when we take the Stoic idea that the good life is about living in alignment with nature and look at the nature of human beings as being naturally creative then we are left with a question that can take us modern Homo sapiens even further than the question of the good life: ‘What is the creative life and how do you live it?

As a human being, living in alignment with nature certainly makes the most sense. Why? Not simply because we are a part of nature, but because our nature is a part of our authenticity and our authenticity is a prerequisite for the good life (if only for the simple reason that it takes energy to pretend to be something that we are not). This doesn’t mean that we live out the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ and say that what is natural is good, but what it does mean is that we acknowledge our nature and work with it, instead of pretending that it is something other than what it is and causing all kinds of unnecessary friction in our lives.

Perhaps the most Stoic lesson of all is the lesson of reality itself: ‘It is what it is’ and if we try to treat things, including ourselves as other than what they are, we are only creating illusions for ourselves that will eventually be shattered (and that always hurts). If nature flows through us and we are the physical embodiments of its creative intelligence then the thing that is most human about us is our creativity. If we are to live a human life and therefore the good life, we are to live a creative life.

The question of how to live a ‘creative life’ over a ‘good life’ is aligned with reality for a number of reasons. Let’s explain them briefly: First of all, the idea of life being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a product of human thought and the way that we interpret the events that happen to us, reality itself is amoral – this doesn’t mean that we can’t be fulfilled overall, but a life that is good or bad will always be distanced from the flow of things as they actually are.

The idea of flow brings us on to the second point, which is that outside of human perception there are no events, only processes – our life will never reach a stage of being ‘good’, or ‘successful’, or anything else, but if we aim to live it creatively, we choose to live it according to a concept that means we have to tune into process and therefore ‘reality’; ‘creativity’ is about working a process into life and having what is within you manifest itself in the world around you. This brings us to the final point; the ‘good life’ tends to see us as independent individuals, the creative life sees us as being interdependent. We aren’t all good, but all of us are creative and that creativity can only have an impact if it allows what is inside us to touch others.

From Good to Authentic

There are two types of human beings in the world: Those that are creative, and those that have allowed themselves to hide their creativity from themselves due to the self-limiting beliefs or cultural pressure that they have picked up over the years as they left childhood and entered adulthood. To understand this, consider the way in which truly ‘creative’ people are like children; they are present and unaware of what others may think of them, they do not produce work to be approved of or to impress others, they are in the moment, flowing and abuzz in the blaze of their own creative potential. They are active and curious because they haven’t been taught to live passively or be punished for asking questions. In other words, they are human beings, not people (see Personal Revolutions #36: Human / Person).

According to John Bradshaw, in his book Homecoming, the founder of Positive Psychology Carl Rogers suggested in his ‘Theory of Creativity’ that there are several elements that can help to foster authentic creativity. According to Rogers, these were:

Ability to live in the now,
Ability to experience wonder,
Ability to concentrate,
Capacity to be one’s own locus of evaluation

If you’ve ever seen a child deep in a creative outburst – painting a picture, playing, making something – you’ll see that most of these conditions are met. And, anecdotally, many of the more ‘creative’ people that I’ve met over the course of my lifetime seem to embody this childlike quality. Even Einstein, one of the most creatively intelligent human beings to ever have lived, apparently once said “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” If that doesn’t embody his sense of wonder then perhaps nothing will – if you ‘grow up’ too soon, you stop asking questions and your soul goes to sleep.

And really, that’s all we’re talking about. If the creative life comes from our way of being in the world then it revolves around being authentic in the world. You can live a reasonably ‘good life’ just by bringing new and novel external things into your life, but as we’ve seen from the epidemic of depression, or at least dissatisfaction, in the modern world, this doesn’t always work. Authenticity precedes ‘happiness’ or a ‘good life’ and you can only be authentic from the inside out.

The reason that understanding the childlike qualities that Rogers points us in the direction of is because they hint of the authentic self that we are born to be. When we say that there are two types of people, creatives and those that have hidden their creativity from themselves, what we are really saying is that there are those who reached adulthood with their humanity intact and those that have had to hide it from themselves.

This doesn’t mean that we have to take on the negative attributes of the archetypal child and start throwing temper tantrums or dribbling on ourselves, but it does mean that we consider opening ourselves to the world and experiencing it in a childlike way from time to time, especially when working on creative projects, but ideally when we are looking at ourselves and creating our lives. This is the difference between being a human being and being a person – as it says in #36 Human / Person, “There’s something timeless and whole about the idea of a human being; a person, in comparison, is very much a fragmented product of time and location.” To be human means to bring in the whole of ourselves – our instinct, intellect, and intuition – not just limiting ourselves by the intellectual concepts that we carry about ourselves and who we think we are at the cost of crushing our creative drive.

From Intellect to Everything

We live in an ‘information age’ that worships the intellect. This has brought many boons and blessings to our lives but with the unfortunate side-effect of having many of us worship the intellectual side of ourselves, attach ourselves to our thoughts, ideas, and concepts, as we mistake these things for the world itself, and to neglect the other parts of ourselves that add up to make us human. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it wasn’t for the gap that exists between our conceptual understanding of the world, and the illusion of stasis that these concepts project over a reality that is changing and in flux. The intellect is a tool if we use it well, but if we allow it to use us and become our master, we fall into the illusion that we can control everything about our lives, when in reality as humble human beings, we can only influence some things sometimes.

Perhaps we can understand all of this a little easier if we look at the distinction between the human being and the ‘human doing’ (not sure where the term ‘human doing’ originated but I hear it a lot in coaching circles). The first of these, in the terms already used, is working from the inside out, the latter defines oneself only by the things that one does and is constantly working to rearrange the ‘external’ furniture of one’s life in order to feel better inside.

Or, to look at it in more detail:

A human being is flexible and lives in the moment, he is able to move with reality as it changes and to adapt to the situations that are out of his control. A human being defines himself internally and has clarity about what he stands for, his values, and how he can bring more of these into the world. A human being is ‘timeless’ in the sense that he is connected to all other human beings through his awareness of himself in eternity and of the similarities between himself and all of the other human beings to either precede or follow his own life. A human being produces creative work to express his/her values and to bring more of them into the world. The human being is an adult that knows how to tap into his or her inner child when this is helpful.

A ‘human doing’ is inflexible and rigid, he lives either in the past through the habitual approach to creativity or in the future due to anxiety about how his work will be received (he is outcome-dependent because his sense of ‘wellness’ or self-esteem is attached to external results). A human doing is defined by the results of his actions and is a product of his time and location, he is not connected to the other human beings that have been before him because he connects and identifies with what is most contingent about himself (externalities such as false self-image, verification, approval and applause of others, and the results of his actions in time-bound location). A human doing produces creative work to try and get other people to buy into the false image of self that the human doing needs to hide his/her emptiness from himself. The human doing is a child locked in an adult’s body.

There are myriad other differences with other implications for creativity that I’ll explore through later posts and projects, but hopefully these provide you with some food for thought. The attitude of identifying as a human being is essential for creativity because it is about accepting one’s limits without limiting oneself. It is about accepting one’s imperfection and shooting for the stars knowing you may never touch them. A human being is no more or less than human and that is fine but if you don’t accept that reality it will affect your creativity as you place invisible barriers upon yourself or lock yourself into a web of thoughts and symbols about the world instead of being in the world itself.

Mechanical World to Creative World

Our society at present encourages us to be human doings instead of human beings. This is true as a whole but applies also to creative industries. Creative people are attracted to creativity because it allows them to be a certain way, unfortunately when they get into the conveyer belt of the modern creative industries the focus on doing over being is more important (due to need to make profit, etc.). Instead of this either/or approach to doing vs being, we need to find a way to bridge the two so that being precedes doing, relationships improve in the creative workplace, and the ‘doing’ is done in a way that maximises the creative being of those being creative.

Personal Revolutions Culture Shift Map
Personal Revolutions Culture Shift Map

Much of this revolves around the way that we approach our creativity as individuals, how we allow ourselves to flow into and through uncertainty, for example, instead of assuming that we know everything already, or about being more concerned with process and injecting our values into the world over focusing only on outcomes and results and then defining ourselves according to them. Ideally, we would be able to both be as we wish and produce the results that we wish to produce, but this can only happen if we are bold enough to change the mechanics of the systems that we live, work, and create within. Much of this is shown in the Personal Revolutions Culture Shift Map (from the book’s toolkit), posted above.

In a world that worships only the intellect and the results of our doing, the systems truncate large parts of who we are at our most authentic. Only by opening up ourselves to the whole of ourselves can we create whole systems that engender the whole of our creative selves. We are all part of the machine but we need to work, think and create like human beings. The creative lives of individuals affect the human lives of all around the world, but it begins by focusing on our being and channeling it into authentically creative doing.

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