Negative Capability, John Keats and Half Man Half Biscuit.

Everybody sing along…….

There is nothing better in life,

Than writing on the sole of your slipper with a biro.

There is nothing better in life,

Than writing on the sole of your slipper with a biro.

There is nothing better in life,

Than writing on the sole of your slipper with a biro,

On a Saturday night instead of going to the Pub.

Lyrics: The Best Things In Life by sometimes surreal Half Man Half Biscuit (hmhb).

Well there is……spending Saturday night, not with slipper and biro, but researching the 19th century English Romantic Poet John Keats and his ideas on Negative Capability (my wife tells me that by now most people will have left). There is a very good reason for my mindshift…….

Earlier this year I was at Welsh Public Services Summer School where I was introduced to the idea of negative capability and Keats. This was in the context of how to approach learning and how I might best experience new ideas during the week. Helpfully it was broken down into some ideas I could get my head around.

Positive Capability: Acts of certainty; Confidence; Extend Boundaries; Control; Comfort; and Adding Skills (the place where we spent most time).

Negative Capability: Self inquiry; Observation; Adaption; Humility; Imagination and Uncomfortable Learning (not visited very often).

This explanation was great as a starting point but something kept troubling me and was the reason why I ended up researching John Keats on a Saturday night, whilst listening to hmhb. The question I kept asking myself was; is negative capability really any different to some of the learning and self-development ideas I’ve heard about before? Things like:

  • Push the boundaries;
  • “Do one thing every day that scares you” (just did that).
  • Get out of your comfort zone;
  • Think outside of the box;
  • Be comfortable with ambiguity;
  • Deal with complexity etc,etc.

Here are the results of my research and a few links that might be useful.

  • Wikipedia: Negative Capability, to be honest this didn’t help. I’m a lapsed scientist and the language  was all a bit too literary and then edged into psychoanalysis  (blimey).
  • French, Simpson & Harvey explained it more helpfully in a paper on Creative Leadership. Here they use the Keats quote to describe the state in which a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

This is all great, but what you really need on a Saturday night is YouTube……….

  • Video by conferencereport. A useful explanation if you can cope with the cars passing in the background.  Having the presenter talk to a hand-held camera while walking around was curiously engaging.
  • Eben Pagan’s Get Altitude video has a more ‘management seminar’ style and talks about understanding another person’s emotions. A bit tangential.
  • Bright Star is a 2009 film about the Keats poem of the same name, here is the official trailer. Helpfully there are other videos linked to the film where negative capability is explained. Here is one with chaps diving in the lake Mr. Darcy style. To my surprise, the explanation of how to ‘understand poetry’ helped a lot with my understanding of negative capability.

“The point of diving in the lake is not to immediately swim to the shore, but to be in the lake. To luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not, ‘work the lake out’. It is an experience beyond thought”

Summer School was a bit like diving in and immersing myself. Now I’m sitting back and doing some of the ‘working out’, on Saturday nights as it happens. As for hmhb lyrics, I’m still in the lake, luxuriating in the mystery.

So what’s the PONT?

  1. Negative capability is different from just ‘pushing the boundaries’ of things you already know about.
  2. Accept that you cannot and may not need to understand everything you encounter.
  3. It can feel uncomfortable but by immersing yourself in things you don’t fully understand, new things can emerge.

Photo source: John Keats

I have to finish this off with one more hmhb reference for Helen Reynolds. John Keats wrote several odes including ode to a nightingale. As far as I know hmhb only have one ode, ‘ode to Joyce’, which does have a video featuring this picture of a kitten playing a guitar. Awesome!

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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