Creativity – Lessons from Jesuits

25th December 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD Innovation produces unintended risks. However, only a scientific temper can advance knowledge

25th December 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD

Innovation produces unintended risks. However, only a scientific temper can advance knowledge

Ganesha is the Lord who helps overcome obstacles. In three Innocolumns since Ganesh Chaturthi, I have written about golden rice, genetically-modified seeds and general technophobia to illustrate the point about innovation obstacles. Innovation produces unintended risks; however, only a scientific temper can advance knowledge.

This column will appear just after Christmas. I have returned from the premier and upcoming Goa Institute of Management, which was founded by a Jesuit and is currently run by a Jesuit. I studied at St Xavier’s School and College in Kolkata, a Belgian Jesuit institution. The dedication as well as the curiosity, enquiry and erudition of Jesuits have always fascinated me. They seemed deeply immersed, whether it was Physics, Archaeology or even Sanskrit. Over the years, I have tried to understand this Order with specific regard to creativity and innovation. Their origin and evolution bear lessons.

The Roman Catholic Order of the Society of Jesus was founded by Spaniard St Ignatius of Loyola, along with nine companions, around 1540. One of those companions was St Francis Xavier, whose exposition in Old Goa is currently on. St Francis Xavier arrived in Goa in 1541 and held the record for converting the highest numbers during his time.

The early Jesuits realised that the hierarchical Catholic Church was in dire need of reform. The clergy then was poorly educated. The Jesuits were “men on the move”, ready to go anywhere on a mission under obedience to the Pope. Education was not the principal goal of the early Jesuits. Soon, the founders realised that intellectual competence was essential to bring about change. During his lifetime, Ignatius opened as many as 33 schools. Thus, the Jesuits insisted on a high level of academic preparation for those wishing to be ordained into the ministry. Knowledge became an enabling pre-requisite. That is how although the Order had got papal approval in 1537 and despite their loyalty, Ignatius and his successors periodically upset the Pope and the church bureaucracy. I reckon this happens to all creative people.

The central tool used by the Jesuits to change people’s hearts and minds was the “Ignatius Retreat” or “Spiritual Exercises”. This required a four-week period of silence, directed meditations and conversations with a spiritual director. The retreat was aimed at ridding the person of pre-dispositions and biases, enabling the person to make free choices. It was through this technique that Jesuit education burst forth onto the world in the 16th century.

The techniques of silence and meditation are not unique to the Jesuits. They have been practised in yoga for long. Thinker and author Pico Iyer spoke eloquently about The Art of Stillness in his much-watched TED talk.* To quote from him, “Freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize.” The lesson is that you need a method to develop an open mind.

Armed with knowledge and an open mind, the Jesuits became very focussed and disciplined about their subjects of study. They learned how to specialise in a subject, yet integrate their knowledge into their theological base. Deep specialisation rested on a philosophical platform of education and innovation.

The results were an effulgence of innovative thinking and learning. Jesuits made such significant contributions to the understanding of earthquakes that seismology was even described as “a Jesuit science”. During the 17th century, Jesuits made important contributions to experimental physics. In the glittering Chinese Ming courts, Jesuits were regarded as “impressive for their knowledge of astronomy, calendar-making, mathematics, hydraulics and geography”.

Four lessons for modern innovation can be drawn: first, recognise that knowledge is essential; second, adopt a formal method for the development of an open mind; third, learn the art of making free choices and; fourth, specialise deeply on a philosophical platform.

We somehow assume that we require no training in our “natural functions” such as breathing, eating, concentrating and innovating. Yoga teaches us that we do need such training. Maybe it is time to introduce Vipasana into innovation training in companies.