There’s much to be said for not asking, “Why?” says Charles Handy
Negative capability was a phrase created by John Keats in 1817, which he believed applied particularly to poets and artists. Keats said it meant something like this: to be in a state of knowing something without irritatingly looking for the reasons, facts or evidence for that knowledge.
However, I think “negative” is the wrong word here. It’s really an alternative capability. And to put it more simply: it’s to know something without being able to explain why. Many of us have this capability, but it’s particularly important in artists.
Unfortunately, I started studying philosophy, and in philosophy you need to know the reason for everything.
When I was young and I queried my mother about some of the more fantastical aspects of the Bible, she replied, “Darling, just believe – you don’t have to have reasons.”
“But I do,” I insisted. “I need evidence. I need logical reasons for how these things could happen. You’ve asked me to believe five impossible things before lunchtime and given me no facts, no reasons – I can’t do that”.
She shook her head sadly.
In time, I learnt to suspend my search for reason and facts. Why on earth not just let the music of the evensong seep in, the words of the Bible and the prayer book, the beautiful architecture of the cathedral and the music of Mozart or whoever? Don’t try to explain it, just accept it.
I’ve even stopped trying to bully people out of those beliefs they can’t defend. I now think it’s grossly rude to do such a thing. People are allowed to believe what they want to believe. I don’t quarrel with my grandchildren when they say they see little people bouncing up and down on the branch of a tree in the back garden. Magic has its place.
As well as artists, poets and children, I believe many entrepreneurs have a kind of alternative capability – an ability to believe in a new, invented product or service without being able to explain exactly why it will work. Take Dr Spencer Silver, for instance – the man without whom we would not have Post-it notes.
A scientist working at US multinational conglomerate 3M, Silver tried to develop a super-strong adhesive, but instead accidentally created a “low-tack”, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. He believed his invention had some kind of practical use, but didn’t know what exactly.
Then a colleague came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymn book. And soon they came up with this piece of paper that sticks, but doesn’t stick too much. Which actually proved a hard sell to the bosses at 3M.
“What will people use it for? How will we market it?”
When they eventually did make their first yellow sticky Post-it notes, everybody intuitively recognised what they were for. But you couldn’t have explained it exactly, people just had to use them.
So, if you see people in your organisation dreaming away, let them do it, and taste what they come up with, don’t query them. It isn’t always polite to ask the cook exactly how she made that delicious fish soup – just eat and enjoy. Sometimes knowing too much can spoil things.
Cultivate your own alternative capability, your imagination. And don’t keep it to yourself – use it to create something, whether it’s a film, a book or a product. You don’t need to explain everything to everyone, or even to yourself. And believe. Yes, believe you can do these things.
This is Charles Handy, wishing you well. Have a creative weekend.