Creativity Starts with Empathy

One of the wisest sayings is “The more I learn, the less I know.” In 1817, the poet John Keats wrote, in a letter to his brother, about how the world is far more complex than we could ever imagine. Due to our limited experience and perceptive abilities, we only glimpse a small portion of reality.

Seeking First to Understand Keats was actually explaining his thoughts on the creative process. He believed that the most creative people are those who can suspend their own proclivity to judge and instead simply observe and experience. They are humble enough to believe that they can learn from others who hold very different viewpoints and beliefs. According to Keats, this “negative capability” is the source of creative power. It is the ability to endure and embrace ambiguities and uncertainties. It requires cultivating the habit of suspending the need to judge every situation and to instead consider viewpoints opposite from your own to try to understand other perspectives. Questioning Assumptions In his book, Mastery, Robert Greene asserts that negative capability is the single biggest factor in becoming a successful creative thinker. It is the opposite of confirmation bias. Instead of gravitating toward opinions and interpretations of data that confirm what you already “know,” we should seek out unfamiliar types of books and different schools of thought. Of course, in the end we must make judgments and develop conviction around certain points of view. Negative capability is not a permanent state. It is a temporary process to open up the mind to new possibilities. The biggest challenge in doing this is that it requires the need to question unexamined assumptions. These are the thoughts that are so ingrained in us that we automatically and subconsciously believe them to be true. Here’s how Greene puts it: “Perhaps the greatest impediment to human creativity is the natural decay that sets in over time in any kind of medium or profession. In the sciences or business, a certain way of thinking or acting that once had success quickly becomes a paradigm, an established procedure. As the years go by, people forget the initial reason for this paradigm and simply follow a lifeless set of techniques.” The Evolution of Financial Planning Thirty years ago, a new financial profession was emerging that was premised on the idea of providing advice to clients. In a product-focused industry, this was disruptive and threatening. To those involved with it, it was new and exciting. Suddenly, it wasn’t about having to sell products; it was about understanding people and helping them to solve their financial problems. The process for providing this type of advice was codified into six steps of the financial planning process. Here we are, decades later, the financial planning and the advice centered model has succeeded. As a team that’s been providing comprehensive financial planning for decades, we celebrate this change. Going Beyond the Numbers The challenge now – and the honest question every comprehensive financial planner needs to ask – is this:
  • Am I creatively adapting the financial planning model in new and different ways? Or am I simply following established procedure and planning process and a “lifeless set of techniques”?
The goal for forward-thinking wealth advisors is to get into the minds and hearts of clients and look outward to help them see the rest of the problem. What is the “rest of the problem” that remains for clients who have already experienced the traditional financial planning process? What still needs to be addressed? While that is an open question, here are a couple past examples of challenges our clients have faced that are outside the scope of traditional planning but crucial to address: “I know in my head what I’m supposed to do, but I continue to make the wrong decisions and follow the same unhelpful patterns.”
  • Reveals a need to delve into the true motivators and the “why” underneath financial decision-making in order to help clients truly change.
“I am successful by any objective financial measurement but still feel restless, anxious, and unfulfilled.” 
  • Need to connect money to purpose and meaning; Help clients articulate their core values and transition from success to significance.
The road to effective innovation starts by considering different perspectives and challenging conventional wisdom. It begins with true empathy in order to uncover the next level of unmet need.