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  • Agastya International Foundation

Living And Acting Creatively

Updated: Jul 9

41st Foundation Day Lecture at IIMB


 In January, 1882 Van Gogh, the great Post-impressionist painter in a letter to his brother Theo, wrote “Drawing becomes more and more a passion with me, and it is a passion just like that of a sailor for the sea”. Van Gogh’s art represented painting as music. “They are not just flowers in a vase, they are something almost cosmic”, said a critic of The Sunflowers, one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings.


Unlocking the creative potential of children, adults and communities around the world - rich, poor and downtrodden - is one of the central challenges of the 21st century. By the end of my speech you will learn about the transformative power of curiosity and new ways to see, unlock and unleash your own creativity. 


So, what makes you creative, innovative, or a great problem-solver? Is it something in your genes or a skill that you have learned? In 1884 when Einstein was 5 years old and ill in bed his father brought him a gift, a magnetic compass. The compass fascinated the young Einstein because whichever way he held it, it always pointed in the same direction. It was a momentous gift. Einstein remarked years later that it was the magnetic compass that made him wonder if there was an invisible force behind everything in the universe and as you know he dedicated his life to finding it. I know what you are thinking. Do I have to be an Einstein to be creative? So let’s fast forward more than a century later to 2008 on a hot summer’s day in rural India, when two village girls, Rani and Roja – one the daughter of a farmer with no more than 1 or 2 acres of land and the other the daughter of a carpenter – sat under a tree to escape the sun. Rani looked at Roja and said “Roja, do you ever wonder why you feel cool sitting in the shade of a tree?” Roja thought for a second and replied “maybe it has something to do with the fact that the leaves and branches of the tree shield us from the sun”. The girls continued talking until the Aha! Question popped out “Would different leaves have different cooling effects? That question led to a project not surprisingly titled the cooling effect of leaves, and working with teacher-igniters from the Agastya Foundation nine months later the girls won a prestigious Intel-IRIS Science Award competing with the best and brightest students from across India; most of them from urban schools. Is the story of Rani and Roja an uncommon one? Let me tell you about Sai and Pavithra two kids in N. Karanataka who used to…(story of Sai and Pavithra – making paper from groundnut shells). Since 2008, hundreds of poor children – children whom Agastya teaches to teach other children, children of parents with little to no money - have produced projects with creative and innovative findings and insights, and many of them have won prizes and awards in India and abroad. 


What do these stories tell you? I think they tell you the value of curiosity, the spirit of enquiry, the magic of wonder, the power of passion. Einstein attributed his earth shattering insights to curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance - staying with a problem until you have cracked it. Newton’s peculiar gift wrote Keynes was his “continuous, concentrated introspection”, his ability to hold continuously a problem in his mind for weeks until he cracked it. Our Rishis had great mental energy, which enabled them to hold ideas in their mind continuously for years and decades. In 1988 when I was a banker in NYC I saw a film on PBS called The Man Who Loved Numbers, about the mathematical genius Ramanujan. As I watched fascinated, Janakiammal, Ramanujan’s wife’s comments on her husband moved me deeply. A few weeks later I was on a visit to Madras, and one evening I mentioned the PBS film to my uncle. To my delight and surprise, he asked me “Would you like to meet Mrs. Ramanujan?” I said, “Yes!” About an hour later I was led into a modest home in Triplicane and was immediately drawn to a magnificent bust of Ramanujan’s made by an American sculptor, and funded by a 100 mathematicians around the world. The bust dominated the room. As we chatted, Mrs. Ramanujan, who was 89 and hard of hearing, said in a high-pitched voice with tears in her eyes, “People have forgotten my husband”. Speaking about Ramanujan’s last days she said that pieces of paper with abstruse mathematical formula scribbled over them were strewn on his deathbed. “For him”, she said with wonder, “it was only numbers, numbers and numbers”. Ramanujan did not just love numbers. He lived them - an astounding, perhaps even an extreme, example of passion-based creativity. 


So why should you be creative? Creativity is the most desired trait among knowledge workers today because creativity leads you to new ideas, which lead to invention and innovation, which lead to productivity and prosperity. And as future leaders you need to be creative, to build environments where creativity can flower and flourish. Equally, the creative spirit as the great sages, artists and poets tell us elevates your vision. It connects you to things beautiful and sacred beyond your narrow self and experience. It infuses spontaneity, and gives meaning and purpose to life. When someone asked J Krishnamurti why he spoke so much to public audiences he replied, “Why does a flower bloom?” 


Twelve years ago when I returned to India to start Agastya Foundation I asked the question: What makes a country creative and innovative? Can you raise the level of the ocean, the speed limit of creativity of a country? Through discussions with Dr. PK Iyengar, KV Raghavan, teachers, educators, students and business people on what distinguishes a creative person we came up with a model. We said that you the creative person are a great observer; you see more than others; you hear more than others; you feel more deeply than others; you experience deep, unbiased awareness, which gestates and grows an idea or thought. You tinker and experiment; you have the capacity to connect, assimilate and associate different pieces of apparently unconnected knowledge and information, and the ability to apply your insight to produce something of value for yourself, your community or society. Skills, identical to the discovery skills of creative entrepreneurs that Christensen and others document in The Innovator’s DNA. So we asked the question “can you learn such skills?” and the answer was “Yes you can!” Iyengar told me that if he gave me, a non-scientist, a 100 low cost science experiments…To observe better, you must have the urge, the motivation and the passion to enquire and discover. When Chanakya was sitting downcast in a village questioning why he and his protégé Chandragupta were losing their battles against their hated enemy the Nanda king… (Narrate the story). So if you want to raise the speed limit of creativity in a society you have to create conditions to trigger and unleash curiosity. You might not produce a Ramanujan, but you can build systems that encourage and enable more Ranis and Rojas to express and give shape to their ideas fearlessly. How? We decided to focus on hands-on, experiential learning because cognitive scientists tell you that this is a proven way to increase learning and retention. The human brain on average retains 5% of a lecture in its long-term memory, 50% of what you see and hear, 70% of what you discuss with someone, 80% of what you personal experience and over 90% of what you teach to others. Also, hands-on experience results in higher levels of motivation and confidence.

Over the years we realized that the answer to triggering curiosity and fostering creativity and innovation might well lie in a simple toy like the Tippe Top. The Tippe Top highlights the three most important elements in learning. When you spin it, it tips over unexpectedly and you go Aah! Rather like how you feel when you see something counterintuitive, arresting or beautiful, when your curiosity is stirred and your mind is awakened. And then you wonder why or how this happens. And the process of discovery leads you to the Aha! Moment or several Aha moments when things click, or when you have an insight. Finally, you must have fun doing what you are doing, which is the Ha-ha element. Fun and humor remove fear and anxiety, help retention and increase performance. If the 3Rs were the stepping-stone for education in the 20th century, I believe the 3 As – Aah, Aha and Ha-ha – are the stepping-stones to creativity in the 21st century. It’s easy! Infuse the 3 As into education, into the way you live and you will raise your creative output by triggering important behavioral shifts, from Yes to Why, from Looking to Observing, from being Passive to learning to Explore, from being Textbook-bound to Hands-on, and finally, the most important shift, from Fear to Confidence. Some years ago, I happened to visit a village school where I met the head teacher and asked her “what impact is Agastya having on your children?” and she pointed me to a tall girl, Uma who was standing under a tree. So I went up to Uma and asked her “Uma, you have been visiting Agastya for several months now, has there been any change?” and do you know what she said? She didn’t say that she was doing great in her studies – which apparently she was – she just looked at me and said, “I am not afraid to speak anymore”. This was an Aah, Aha and Ha-ha moment for me. I realized that the real value of our hands-on interventions was the precious opportunity they gave disadvantaged children to lift their confidence and self-belief, to shift from what psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’ to ‘learned optimism’. Uma became the first girl from her village to go to an engineering college and her example inspired many other girls from her village to join college.


So curiosity is a wonderful thing. But as life shows you all too often curiosity alone does not guarantee action. And confidence alone sometimes can lead you to ill conceived and - when it spills into arrogance - disastrous action. Curiosity combined with confidence can lead you to strong action. And curiosity with confidence and humanity can lead you to right or creative action.


I have talked about curiosity in terms of the external world, but this is only half the story. There is, equally, the power of curiosity into your inner world, the science of the interior, or Adhyatma Vidhya. Among Indian sculptors of old long periods of meditation produced godly and spectacular works of art, what Aurobindo termed as great examples of ‘spirit to form’. On the seventh of June, 1893 when 24 year-old Mohandas Gandhi was thrown out of the first class compartment of his train in Maritzburg, South Africa he sat humiliated and shivering in the dark waiting room pondering his plight. He thought, “I have three options. I can forget what happened to me and continue with my life. I can go back to India, or I can stay and fight”. He concluded that he would be a coward if he chose option 1 or 2. He decided to stay and fight. Gandhi’s introspection on that miserable wintry night, when he questioned, discovered, felt and explored his fears and motives in a moment of personal crisis was a defining experience, a deeply creative one for him and a pivotal moment for the world; a moment which led to action, whose results benefitted millions. The coming together of Gandhi’s inner questioning with purposeful action changed the world. 


So when the two worlds of curiosity – the outer and the inner – meet you have a revolutionary mind, a mind that is infused with abiding curiosity, confidence and humanity, a mind that lives and acts creatively, a mind that acts with passion and purpose. That mind is yours if….IF you are aware and alive to the power and richness of being curious, to the fun and excitement of uncertain and unknown outcomes; if you enquire, tinker and experiment not only because you want a result be it money, fame, success, love or liberation but because you enjoy and love the process of discovery!

Five thousand and one hundred years ago a blind kind asked his charioteer “………………..”. You are today at the crossroads of a similar ‘make or break’ decision. You have a great responsibility. Like never before in our history, what you chose to do in and for India will have a profound effect on the world. As Krishnamurti said, “You are the world”. 


Do you want to build a creative India? An India, that invents and innovates, an India that creates and builds new ways and methods of learning, business, entrepreneurship, politics, social enterprise, sustainable living, and spiritual living. Or do you want to copy what someone else says or does? As you step out of IIMB into the world to produce great results and make a difference, be curious in the deepest sense. Practice the art of being curious. Take projects and assignments with uncertain and unknown outcomes that force you to enquire and discover. Watch yourself closely through your journey and write down and discuss your observations. Elevate your vision, go where no one’s gone before, challenge and inspire yourself and your colleagues through your unique mission. Sing and dance, or create environments where singers and dancers like Rani and Roja or a young Ramanujan can flourish. You will be creative either way. Find your Tippe Top and live the 3As – Aah! Aha! and Ha-ha!

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