The most important thing you can create is your own life

Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce,) recently announced a new RSA worldview, a thought provoking manifesto he calls the “Power to Create”. In it Matthew argues that we are at the cusp of an unprecedented opportunity: “Powerful social and technological changes mean that we can now realistically commit to the aspiration that every citizen should live a creative life.”

The power of creativity, on both a personal and social level, is central to Creative Skills For Life’s mission. Consequently CSL Founder Ian Spero took advantage of his RSA Fellowship to get the inside track on Matthew’s thinking, and explore his views pertaining to creativity in healthcare and wellbeing for the Huffington Post.

But first a little background for those not familiar with the history of the RSA. Most people visiting or living in London are aware of the blue plaques which commemorate the links between famous people and buildings. What is less well known is this pioneering scheme is just one of many RSA innovations, which still enrich our lives today; devised by an organisation founded in 1754 with the intent to “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufacturers and extend our commerce”.

With the likes of Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, William Hogarth, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee, representing just a few of the notable past and present elected ‘Fellows’, the RSA celebrates its 260th anniversary this year. Far from resting on its royal laurels, the society is in rude health, having been granted a new lease on life under the direction of Matthew Taylor, who left his previous job as the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to take on the RSA challenge in 2006. With a thriving Fellowship of over 27,000 achievers and influencers, representing 80 countries and a wide array of backgrounds and professions, Taylor has succeeded in revitalising the RSA and ensuring that the society continues to play a pivotal role influencing policymaking across the political spectrum.

We agree to meet at the RSA’s landmark London HQ. I like the building, it has a fresh contemporary feel and there’s not a hint of the stuffiness you sometimes find associated with long standing elite British cultural institutions.

I’m reminded of the RSA’s illustrious heritage on route to the CEO’s office as I pass a magnificent sequence of paintings chronicling the progress of human knowledge and culture, alongside portraits of the Society’s first and second presidents, painted by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds respectively.

Matthew greets me wearing a pair of jeans and an open necked shirt. We make ourselves comfortable at a round table adjacent to his cluttered desk, overlooking a bright central London skyline; in the corner I notice a solitary guitar.

We get straight down to business: I want to know what he means by “a creative life”?

The Most Important thing you can Create is Your Own Life

MT: “To me the most important thing you create is arguably your own life. When we talk about a creation we mean something which is unique, something which is purposeful and meaningful; something which is large and substantial.

For some people leading a creative life is a quality belonging to certain activities; art, culture, design. Indeed the RSA argues strongly for the links between cultural flourishing and social and economic progress. But while we can’t all make the contribution of artists, we can all aspire to live creative lives; lives of which we are the author; lives which allow us to be the best people we can be.”

IS: “OK I buy that, but in the real world can we all afford to live creative lives?”

MT: “Absolutely, notwithstanding the recent dip in living standards, people have become more affluent and the creative resources at our disposal, for the same income, has been transformed. The internet is an extremely important part of that, providing easy and affordable access to key tools of creativity: learning, communicating, trading and collaborating. And in its wake many barriers to creative expression and enterprise have come tumbling down. As Roberto Unger said on the RSA stage last year:

‘The true goal of progressives must be now, as it was in the 19th century, a larger life for the ordinary man and woman.’

Yet from Aristotle to the Victorians, philosophers and social commentators with an ambitious, high minded, idea of the good life well lived have also tended to be elitists, assuming that such an ideal was beyond the capabilities of the masses. But all human beings have the capacity to be the authors of their own lives. Meaning-making is what marks us out as a species. We are born with the muscles for creativity, muscles that grow with the exercise of self-determination.

I also think there’s a slight turn against materialism. Partly it’s led by the realisation that being rich doesn’t necessarily make you happy. But also, as more and more people feel that it’s not likely that they’re ever going to be, as it were, economically comfortable, they move to a kind of – OK well what can I do with what I’ve got?

I believe this is leading to a culture of creative sharing. You can see this in the growth in shared homes, cars and other goods. The potential benefits of a sharing economy, where pragmatism and post materialism meet, are of particular interest to the RSA. We see it as an essential component of the power to create and will expand on this thinking over the next 12 months.”

IS: “So what are the primary components of a creative life?”

MT: “For me, creativity combine the concepts of equality and freedom but adds something extra. A creative life for all is a progressive idea because it talks about ALL citizens having a creative life, so it’s a radical democratic concept.

The thing about creativity, is it is impossible to conceive of it in the absence of our social relations. All our creations rely upon other people, because we create things for audiences, for other people. All creative acts, whether it’s setting up a business, creating a piece of artwork, solving a problem, an act of generosity, these are all things that only have meaning in the context of social relations.

The point is, we are social beings and therefore for me, you are not living a fully creative life if that life isn’t about the contribution you are making to society. That is part of your humanity.

Consequently, someone who spends their whole life creating things that only they will see is not creative in the way I would define a creative life.”

IS: “So what about creativity as a form of therapy, to improve wellbeing and quality of life, rather than as a means of producing an artwork specifically to share with others?”

MT: “That’s a form of self-expression. Let’s take an example of someone going into a care home and encouraging a resident to paint watercolours – that happens because someone has told them you can do it. They don’t have to be an expert and you don’t have to be brilliant to get something out of it.

What I’m saying is overwhelmingly, self-expression  relies on social context.

It will often rely upon your work being admired and appreciated by the rest of the world; I think a lot of creativity is an act of generosity. Would you write poetry if you were the only person left in the world and nobody else was going to read it?”

IS: “Perhaps not, but I may write a diary, which could be a cathartic and creative process. At CSL we believe that encouraging self-expression can help those living with serious health conditions to achieve a better quality of life – would you agree?”

MT: “Absolutely, but it’s worth untangling what’s going on there first though.

Sociability is one of the really important reasons for doing this, why it works, is people are in a group painting together, dancing together or singing together. Which is, by the way, also true of sport.

And then there is self-confidence. That sense of mastery. It doesn’t really matter if what you become good at is finishing a marathon, doing your plumbing, baking a cake or completing your life drawing. What makes you feel good is mastering.

By mastery, I mean the sense you have of having cracked something – and we know that is a fundamental human satisfaction – which is very often denied to people in a modern world, because many people have jobs where they are a small part of a complex process. Sure, they can master their bit of that complex process, but it’s not the same satisfaction you get when you produce your own artwork, or when you write a poem, or set up your own business; whatever it might be.  When they are put in a creative position, someone has said to them, ‘It’s up to you to do something that is meaningful to you.’

IS: So, the Power to Create can improve self-confidence and self-respect?

MT: “I think that’s absolutely right, and it’s particularly true of the amateur. If you’re a professional and you make your money out of being an artist, then other people’s appreciation is critical.

Whereas if you’re an amateur, you’re relieved of most of that pressure, and because, one of the joys of giving people creative expression is autonomy, the very fact that for the majority of those people, it doesn’t matter what other people think, it’s part of the liberation process, finding self-confidence within yourself, regardless of the judgement of your peers.”

Which brings us back to Creative Skills For Life. At CSL we believe in the power of creativity to liberate pent up emotions, especially for people living with life-threatening conditions. The utilisation of creativity in health and disease is an under researched, and under-appreciated field, that has huge potential to alleviate stress and anxiety, improve quality of life and reduce cost of healthcare. Find out more about  our work here.

Before I leave his office, my curiosity gets the better of me. Matthew notices I’m looking at the guitar leaning against the wall.

MT: “Yes, it’s mine, I’m learning to play. Not very well, but I’m enjoying the effort.”

IS: “I see, so you are practicing for your own benefit or to entertain others?”

MT: “Truth be told I’m doing it for me. It’s taking forever, but I’m loving the challenge, and it’s a welcome creative distraction from the day job.”

Matthew and I resume our dialogue in a forthcoming Huffington Post, when we will focus on the profound problems facing an aging population, within the context of an institutional care system which is clearly not fit for 21st Century purpose. In the interim, read Matthew’s recent CSL blog on Creative Communities with a Cause and follow CSL on Twitter.