Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society - by John W. Gardner

Every individual, organization or society must mature, but much depends on how this maturing takes place. A society whose maturing consists simply of acquiring more firmly established ways of doing things is headed for the graveyard--even if it learns to do these things with greater and greater skill. In the ever-renewing society what matures is a system or framework within which continuous innovation, renewal and rebirth can occur.

Our thinking about growth and decay is dominated by the image of a single life-span, animal or vegetable. Seedling, full flower and death. "The flower that once has blown forever dies." But for an ever-renewing society the appropriate image is a total garden, a balanced aquarium or other ecological system. Some things are being born, other things are flourishing, still other things are dying--but the system lives on.

Most of us have potentialities that have never been developed simply because the circumstances of our lives never called them forth. Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life--not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range of our capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving and aspiring.

One of the virtues of formal schooling is that it requires the student to test himself in a great variety of activities that are not of his own choosing. But the adult can usually select the kinds of activity on which he allows himself to be tested, and he takes full advantage of that freedom of choice. He tends increasingly to confine himself to the things he does well and to avoid the things in which he has failed or has never tried. We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure--all your life. It's as simple as that.


Research suggests that there are traits which are shared by creative and original people.

Openness. At one level, openness refers to the receptivity of individuals to the sights, sounds, events and ideas that impinge on them. Most of us are skilled in shutting out the world, and what we do observe we see with a jaded eye. Men or women with the gift of originality manage to keep a freshness of perception, an unspoiled awareness. Creative individuals achieve their heightened awareness of some aspects of life by ignoring other aspects. And since the aspects they ignore are often precisely those conventional matters on which the rest of us lavish loving attention, they are often put down as odd. More significant than their receptivity to the external world is their exceptional openness to their own inner life. They do not suppress or refuse to face their own emotions, anxieties and fantasies. They have fewer internal barriers or watertight compartments of experience. They are self-understanding, self-accepting.

Independence. Creative individuals have the capacity to free themselves from the web of social pressures in which the rest of us are caught. They don't spend much time asking "What will people say?" The fact that "everybody's doing it" doesn't mean they're doing it. They question assumptions that the rest of us accept. They are particularly gifted in seeing the gap between what is and what could be. The independence or detachment of creative individuals is at the heart of their capacity to take risks and to expose themselves to the probability of criticism from their fellows. Does this mean that they are nonconformists? Yes, but not necessarily in the popular sense of the word. One of the interesting findings contained in recent research is that creative individuals as a rule choose to conform in the routine, everyday matters of life, such as speech, dress and manners. One gets the impression that they are simply not prepared to waste their energy in nonconformity about trifles. They reserve their independence for what really concerns them--the area in which their creative activities occur. This distinguishes them sharply from the exhibitionists who reject convention in those matters that will gain the most attention.

Flexibility. They will toy with an idea, "try it on for size," look at it from a dozen different angles, argue to themselves that it is true and then argue that it is untrue. Unlike the rest of us, they do not persists stubbornly in one approach to a problem. They can change directions and shift strategies. They can give up their initial perception of a problem and redefine it. They have a capacity to maintain a certain detachment from the conventional categories and abstractions that people use, and a similar detachment from the routines and fixed customs of those around them. They even manage to exercise a reasonable detachment from their own past attitudes and habits of mind, their own pet categories. (In the current fashion we talk much of the limitations on freedom that result from outside pressures and tend to forget the limitations imposed by one's own compulsions, neuroticisms, habits and fixed ideas.) Related to this flexibility is a trait of the creative person that psychologists have called a "tolerance for ambiguity." These individuals have a capacity to tolerate internal conflict, a willingness to suspend judgment. They are not uncomfortable in the presence of unanswered questions or unresolved differences. They do not find it difficult to give expression to opposite sides of their nature at the same time--conscious and unconscious mind, reason and passion, aesthetic and scientific impulses.

Capacity to Find Order in Experience. The individual of high originality, having opened himself to such a rich and varied range of experience, exhibits an extraordinary capacity to find the order that underlies that varied experience, I would even say an extraordinary capacity to impose order on experience. The truly creative person is not an outlaw but a lawmaker. Every great creative performance since the initial one has been in some measure a bringing of order out of chaos. It brings about a new relatedness, connects things that did not previously seem connected, sketches a more embracing framework, moves toward larger and more inclusive understandings.

Conditions of Renewal

Conceptions of freedom that are not linked to conceptions of order are extremely disintegrative of the social fabric. There can be order without freedom, but no freedom without some measure of order. Under conditions of social chaos, the individual can never enjoy certain freedoms that are his as a matter of course in a lawful society. Cicero said, "We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be free." Similarly, in the individual the idea of freedom is inseparable from conceptions of moral responsibility and self-discipline. It is not even a matter of choice, as Burke pointed out: "Men of intemperate minds cannot be free; their passions forge their fetters."

"It is a mistake to suppose that the Supreme Court is either honored or helped by being spoken of as beyond criticism. On the contrary, the life and character of its Justices should be the object of constant watchfulness by all, and its judgments subject to the freest criticism... Many criticisms may be, like their authors, devoid of good taste, but better all sorts of criticism than no criticism at all. The moving waters are full of life and health; only in the still waters is stagnation and death."

Individuality and Its Limits

We have a duty to nourish those qualities within ourselves that make us free and morally responsible beings. And we have an equally compelling duty to honor values beyond the self. "Individuality is something to be built for the sake of something else. It is a structure of potential energies for expenditure in the service of an idea, a cultural endeavor, the betterment of man, an emergent value... An individual self is made only to be lost--that is, only to pledge itself to some enterprise that is in league with a good future; and thereby find itself once more." The seemingly contradictory requirements of self-affirmation and commitments beyond the self are most nearly resolved when man sees himself as reflecting a larger harmony, as a bearer of the creative process of the universe, as a microcosmic participant in the creative process of the macrocosm.

Meaning, Purpose and Commitment

A good many of the most valuable people in any society will never burn with zeal for anything except the integrity and health and well-being of their own families--and if they achieve those goals, we need ask little more of them. There are other valuable members of a society who will never generate conviction about anything beyond the productive output of their hands or minds--and a sensible society will be grateful for their contributions. Nor will it be too quick to define some callings as noble and some as ordinary. One may not quite accept Oliver Wendell Holmes' dictum--"Every calling is great when greatly pursued"--but the grain of truth is there.

Moral Decay and Renewal

Today the skeptic is the status quo. The one who must make effort is the one who seeks to create a new moral order. Many moderns would rather walk barefoot over hot coals than utter an outright expression of moral concern. They have to say it obliquely, mix it with skepticism or humor, or smother it with pessimism. But embarrassment about the expression of moral seriousness is a disease of people far gone in affectation and oversophistication. Unaffected people will regard it as normal to consult their deepest values and to exhibit an allegiance to those values. And they will expect those values to influence their behavior, within the limits of human fallibility. They will not think it odd or embarrassing to talk about them. It is a mistake, of course, to equate moral seriousness with dogmatism, solemnity or conformism. Socrates, who was as earnest as a man could be about matters of moral import was far from dogmatic, rarely solemn, and often disrespectful of the "respectable" ideas of his day.