What Are We Here For?

I’ve often been puzzled by where to start: the artist or his or her work?

Where should the artist start: with a private vision or what the market wants?

When I was appointed executive-in- residence at the Drucker School of Management in Los Angeles I discovered a man with an extraordinary vision whose ideas helped me work this out. Peter Drucker was an Austrian journalist who settled in America as a professor of philosophy and then single-handedly shaped an entirely new theory of management. But I soon learned he was much more than a management expert. He was a humanist.

This struck a chord with me because increasingly I believe we have to start with what it means to be human (what it means for me, what it means for you) in order to understand how to be creative. Creativity involves our sense of ourselves – our talents, purposes and empathy with others (or lack of it). It affects how we work.

How do Drucker’s ideas affect my own work?

This week I have been enjoying Rising Artists Works (RAW) at the Shanghai International Arts Festival. RAW-Land, as it’s called, is a fizzing carnival of theatre, art, video and bazaars. The Shanghai Theatre Academy is master of ceremonies and the artists and audiences are a mix of students, faculty, practitioners and people who wander in off Yanan Lu highway. I’ve just had a chat with a student who was selling woodcuts showing Mao Zedong next to ironic quotes on marriage. We talked about Mao (he said, in a stage whisper, I don’t really like him) and the price of each picture. He was asking RMB 600. I know, he said, art is expensive.

Back in London I’m working with Estonian designers on ways in which, in an emergency, medical workers can access personal data on a lock screen. The good news is that there are lots of what’s called ‘In Case of Emergency’ (ICE) apps. The bad news is that there is no agreed format, layout or language. It seems obvious to me that we need a global standard so that anyone in an emergency can access a person’s name, next-of- kin and medical data. I have a sustained medical condition, epilepsy, and I want first-aid workers, whatever language they speak, to know this.

When I talked with creative people I start with one of Drucker’s favourite questions: What is this company for? What’s its purpose? Then I kick in with my own question: What am I for? Drucker was writing when management meant being in charge of many people in large corporations. But nowadays business flourishes in a kaleidoscope of ventures, large and small, commercial and non-profit. It thrives in the minds of individuals using their talent, however private and subjective it is, to express themselves.

This is why I enjoy mentoring so much.

My own work is based on what I call a ‘self-managed self’. I ask, What are we here for? Starting with, what am I here for? We can use our personal attributes as we wish: our morals, knowledge and passions. The artist chooses what to do, and how to do it, and sets his or her own price. What have I learned in recent weeks? Drucker was right to say management is a humanist enterprise. We cannot be effective without first managing ourselves. In a creative company, our personal values – what we think we are for – is a critical factor not only in personal well-being but also in our ability to push ideas forward and to make a difference.

Lastly, our ideas are not just for us, or the company, but for the world.

About the author

John Howkins

John Howkins first published his ideas on creativity and innovation in ‘The Creative Economy’ in 2001, revised 2013. His most recent book is, 'Creative Ecologies: Where Thinking is a Proper Job'. He has worked in over 30 countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, UK and USA, advising global corporations, international organisations, governments, and individuals. Plans for 2014 include China, Australia, USA, Korea, Russia and Brazil among others. 

One of his major interests is the use of intellectual property laws to support the creative economy. He was the Founder and Director of the Adelphi Charter on Creativity, Innovation and Intellectual Property. He devised the London Intellectual Property Advisory Service now called Own It. His business career has been spent in TV, film, digital media and publishing.  He was associated with HBO and Time Warner from 1982 to 1996 with responsibilities for TV and broadcast businesses in Europe. He is a former Chairman of CREATEC, Tornado and BOP Consulting,