Lessons from How Creative Systems Theory and the Concept of Cultural Maturity Came to Be

The origins of the ideas on which this blog is based are worth taking time with if for no other reason than that they make a fascinating detective story. But they are worthy of our attention, too, because they have important lessons to teach with regard to what makes these notions unique and of particular consequence.

Those origins can be misunderstood. When I speak in academic settings, people often immediately want to know on whose thinking my ideas build. The degree to which these notions have their origins in discovery of a “whole cloth” sort can, for some people, make them suspect. A look at how the concept of Cultural Maturity and the ideas of Creative Systems Theory came to be helps assuage such suspicion. People can also assume that the development of these notions was motivated by some great desire on my part to influence social/political events or to address grand philosophical quandaries. In fact, the roots of these notions are much more humble and the process that eventually brought them to be much less one of design.

I think of those origins in terms of a series of insights. Each insight in a different way came from simply following where my curiosity took me. Often these were directions in which I was initially less than happy to go.

The first insights came in the early decades of my life. In my teen years, I found special fulfillment in the creative arts—in particular sculpture and music. A bit later, I became increasingly fascinated with creative process itself—with how it is that things that matter come into being. I started teaching classes designed to help facilitate creative process in others. I found this very rewarding.

Wanting to understand all I could about how creative process worked, I also began to research what had been written about it. I assumed that academic psychology had extensively studied the topic. To my great surprise, very little had been written, and almost all that had been written was superficial at best. I now better understand why I found this absence and recognize its important implications (see below). But at that time all I knew was that I was going to be more on my own in this inquiry than I had expected.

A couple of recognitions were particularly key in these early examinations. The first was not original, but was certainly important: creative processes progress through a generally consistent sequence of stages. In my earliest writings, I documented these stages and some of the unique demands that come with each of them. The second observation was more fully original and proved of particular significance: Understanding creative process requires an appreciation for how intelligence has multiple aspects.

I saw how each stage in formative process predictably involves a different kind of cognitive process. A simple way to think about it is that each stage draws preferentially on different aspects of intelligence and different relationships between intelligences. The following is a simplified outline: Creativity’s initial incubation stage draws in particular on the more primordial, bodily aspects of intelligence; creative inspiration on intelligence’s more imaginal and mythic aspects; the hard work of creativity’s perspiration stage on the more emotional aspects of intelligence; and the more detailed attention of creative process’s finishing and polishing stage on intelligence’s more rational dimensions.

Besides being key to making sense of creative process, this second observation also helped me understand why academic psychology had provided so little help. Academia is only beginning to question its Age of Reason assumption that truth—certainly truth of a theoretical sort—can always ultimately be described in rational terms. Limited to the rational, what we can say about creative process is limited at best.

I assumed then that my inquiry was complete. I was happy to have made a useful contribution to understanding creativity. But in fact my investigation was just getting started. The next series of insights would alter not just my thinking, but also the trajectory of my life.

In teaching those classes on creativity, I confronted a further essential recognition: Creative process—at least at the depth we were engaging it—was ultimately just life process. I saw that in an important sense I had been doing psychotherapy—and often psychotherapy of a quite innovative sort. I also saw that I needed to learn more about what others before me had done if I was to continue on with my life’s work responsibly. I decided to start medical school and begin training to become a psychiatrist.

In my psychological training, I found special fascination with developmental psychology. In particular, I became intrigued with the work of thinkers such as Jean Piaget who recognized that not only did different stages in development change how people acted, they also change how they saw the world. These forays into developmental thinking brought a startling further recognition—and one of major significance. I saw that stages in individual psychological development appeared to follow the same basic progression I had previously observed for specific creative processes. We go through the same basic evolution of cognitive realities in creating an idea as we do in creating our personal identities. This includes the way the world looks to us. It also includes the intelligences we most draw on. We can understand how we experience each stage in individual development in terms of the aspects of our complex cognitive nature we most make use of in that stage—from body intelligence in our “sensori-motor” beginnings (to use Piaget’s terminology) to rationality with adult perspective.

This additional observation was striking, and clearly important, and with it, I again assumed that my work was complete. I felt satisfied to have added something useful to developmental thought. But there would again be more to come—and much that would prove of ultimately greatest significance.

During my residency, I studied closely with mythologist Joseph Campbell. I became fascinated with the question of how our larger human story has evolved. Important further insights came out of these studies, ones with ultimately even more radical implications. I saw that the very different ways that through history we have made sense of ourselves and our worlds has followed the same basic developmental progression I had observed earlier for creative process and individual development. The stages were the same, as were the underlying sensibilities needed to make sense of them—from tribal culture’s reality of ritual dance and connectedness in nature, to Modern Age culture’s reality of rationality, individuality, and technology.

This further recognition prompted a time of stepping back. There was obviously something important to understand in how these various observations related. I saw that in each case I had been able to observe what I did because I was consciously drawing on more of myself—including more of intelligence’s rich complexity—than we are accustomed to doing. (I would later coin the phrase Integrative Meta-perspective to describe this more systemic kind of vantage, and I would go on to clarify how it is necessary to the kinds of thinking and acting that the future will increasingly require of us.) I also found myself reflecting on the simple fact that what most defines us as a species are our remarkable toolmaking, meaning-making—we could say simply “creative”—capacities. I recognized that what these observations suggested—that human intelligence is structured to support such capacities—is what we might then expect. I saw, too, that it similarly should not surprise us that we might recognize creative patterns in how human change processes work. Increasingly, my earlier sequence of insights began to come together in a coherent picture. I wrote my first book, The Creative Imperative, as an attempt to articulate how a creative frame can help us more deeply understand the human experience. Over time, these reflections would form the foundation of Creative Systems Theory.

I was then quite sure that my job was complete. The Creative Imperative did a remarkably good job of laying out these insights. And writing it was a seven-year marathon. I was quite ready to set it all aside. But again, this would not be so.
With my initial articulation of Creative Systems Theory, I gave particular attention to cultural change—to the way a creative frame helps us make sense of how cultural systems grow and evolve. At first it was how these cultural change concepts helped me better appreciate the past that I found most fascinating—how they provided insight into why our human story has progressed in the ways that it has. But I soon recognized that these ideas also had more immediate and practical implications. They could help us understand the often-confusing times in which we live. This recognition would again challenge me to rethink the direction of my life.

I had become increasingly struck by how, if there is a single, core “mental health” crisis in our time, it is a crisis of story—ultimately, a crisis of human purpose. I began to see how these notions provided a way to understand this crisis of purpose—and to begin to address it. Creative Systems Theory’s big-picture vantage makes clear that the common assumption that our current stage in culture’s story—that which gave us Modern Age institutions and beliefs—is some ideal and end point is not correct. It describes how our times are challenging us to turn the first pages in an important next chapter in the human endeavor. Understanding what this challenge asks of us clarifies much about current human circumstances—both much that is exciting about those circumstance and much that can be deeply disorienting, and dangerous. I coined the term Cultural Maturity so that I would have a readily graspable way to talk about these needed changes. I saw that the concept of Cultural Maturity not only provides a new guiding narrative, it helps us make sense of the more sophisticated ways of understanding and acting that the future will require.

Confronted with this further significance, it became increasingly obvious to me that a major portion of my life’s work needed to focus directly on today’s challenges. And it needed to focus specifically on Cultural Maturity and the necessary changes it entails. I joined together with colleagues to start a nonprofit think tank and center for leadership training—the Institute for Creative Development—to explore Cultural Maturity’s implications and to further develop the ideas of Creative Systems Theory. I knew that the Institute’s work would not be easy, given that our interest lay with human abilities that, at best, we were only beginning to understand. But it was obvious that what we endeavored to do together could not be more important. The Institute brought together exceptional people from around the world to confront many of the most important questions of our time. It also trained people in the new, more sophisticated leadership capacities that the future’s new questions will increasingly demand. It was a time of rich inquiry and deeply fulfilling collaboration.

That gets us close to the end of the story, but not quite up to today. After leading the Institute for eighteen rewarding years, I saw that a further phase in my own life and work would be required. Given the great practical significance of the ideas and approaches we had drawn on, it was important that they be made available to a wider audience. And if these notions had a significant place in the history and evolution of understanding—as they must have if they effectively reflect this needed new chapter in our human story—they warranted further research to substantiate that significance. The three recently published new books are products of twelve years of writing and research that followed. This blog and related web-based contributions continue these efforts.

In introducing this post, I proposed that this bit of history would helps us appreciate what makes these notions unique and of consequence. I think of the concept of Cultural Maturity serving us in three primary ways. This evolving sequence of insights informs the implications of each of these three contributions.

The first is how the concept of Cultural Maturity provides a new guiding narrative—and with this, a creative response to today’s “crisis of purpose.” This chronicling of recognitions both supports the fundamental newness of today’s needed new narrative and provides evidence that what the concept of Cultural Maturity describes is not just some product of personal biases or ambitions. Most more familiar ways of thinking about the future are extensions of familiar ideologies and worldviews—such as liberal or conservative political positions, or scientific/technological and spiritual/religious beliefs. As such they can’t really take us into new territory. Also, because they reflect specific aspects of what is ultimately a more encompassing picture, they inherently come with self-serving biases. The fact that culturally mature perspective requires a new, more conscious engagement with the whole of how we understand supports the conclusion that we are dealing with something fundamentally new. And origins of the concept of Cultural Maturity in the recognition of developmental parallels provides important evidence that it reflects not some new, narrow belief, but important new understandings about how change in human systems works.

Second, the concept of Cultural Maturity helps us make sense of the new human capacities that we will need to fully understand and effectively address future challenges. The story of its origins helps us make sense of why we would expect the needed new capacities to stretch us–-and fundamentally. In an earlier post, I described the inescapable “Catch-22” reality that understanding culturally mature capacities requires culturally mature capacities. The story of the concept’s origins, in documenting how culturally mature perspective takes us into a wholly new territory of experience, helps us understand why this might be so. I’ve also described how these new capacities, once grasped, come to feel like common sense. This result follows from the same observation. On the other side of Culturally Maturity’s threshold, they indeed become obvious and straightforward—just how things work. The difference is that what is then required of us reflects a maturity of common sense that we have not before been capable of.

Third is how the concept of Cultural Maturity helps us understand the new more dynamic and systemic ways of thinking that will be required increasingly in all parts of our lives. Again, this brief history helps us appreciate how this might be so. The needed new ways of thinking follow directly from the developmentally predicted cognitive changes that produce culturally mature perspective. We need only ask how the world looks from this new, more mature and complete kind of vantage. The creative frame that provides the basis for Creative Systems Theory ideas represents one particularly powerful approach for describing what we see.

The story of how the ideas of Creative Systems Theory and the concept of Cultural Maturity came to be does something further that I suggested earlier. It helps affirm the significant contribution these notions make in the larger history of ideas. If the developmental progression I’ve described is accurate, then culturally mature perspective and ideas that reflect it are as significant in our time as the ideas of Descartes and Newton were in describing needed new ways of thinking at the beginning of the Modern Age. Because these notions also help us make sense of why Descartes and Newton saw the world as they did, they are arguably even more significant. They offer overarching vantage for making sense of why we have understood in the ways we have at any particular time—for celebrating our larger human narrative, and with this, ultimately, for more deeply appreciating what it means to be human.