Change management: passé. Conflict resolution: no longer sexy at all. Innovation: it’s the thing—the elixir for today.
There are countless ways to think about innovation. Wait… Isn’t every new thought about innovation an innovation? Well, no. Not unless that creative thought results in the implementation of something new. Innovation involves putting ones creative ideas to work.
Why the rage? Why are so many smart people—artists, designers, educators, engineers and CEOs—all so concerned about whether or not they are doing it?
When we innovate, we snuggle up with our creativity; we do or make something new, that we hope will make a difference and improve the world. We make a baby, of sorts. In the case of disruptive innovation we are even more all powerful. We replace or displace an older way of doing things. We change the way the world works, and the way we work the world. Just at the surface, think: Netflix, Skype, Pandora.
Alchemists of yore were known for their attempt to produce gold from garbage, in their language, the transmutation of the prima materia (common metal) into the philosopher’s stone (gold), which by the way, was thought of as both an elixir for eternal life and a divine child. They thought that Mother Nature, left to her own devices, would take the raw, chaotic elements of the earth (the unconscious according to C.G. Jung) and produce gold through natural processes. The alchemists believed they could intervene in god’s work and speed up the process.
They cooked the raw materials over fire in a specialized vessel for long periods. They prayed. They meditated. They studied the constantly changing conditions and worked with the volatile flames. They monitored the color, consistency and viscosity of their base metals. This work was not for the feint of heart. They often died by asphyxiation, by being burned to death, or even by intentional self-sacrifice. Although they failed constantly, they continued to develop new methods and take even greater risks. The process was symbolized by the Greek ouroborus, the tail-eating dragon that created and destroyed itself.
Some alchemists tended toward science and are credited for contributing to the development of modern chemistry and medicine. Others leaned into the world of philosophy and religion—working towards their own divine illumination and connection with eternity. Alchemy has long been considered a metaphor for what Jung refers to as the individuation process, which, way too simply put, is a person’s path towards wholeness.
This transmutation of common metals into gold was an audacious attempt at disruptive innovation. For who would choose iron, lead, salt or sulfur if one could have gold?
Alchemy has re-entered my consciousness. I hadn’t thought about it much since the completion of my Masters thesis, Living Alchemy: The Creative Spirit in Process, written at the time I was moving away from my identity as an artist, and starting out on my personal development path and career in the field of psychology. Recently, out of nowhere, clients began referring to the ancient practice. So I dug out my thesis. And was surprised, and not at all surprised to read my concluding sentences.
Each time I… allow a new part of my personality to live just a little bit more—whether it is a part of myself that I favor or that I despise and fear—I am once again the artist. Only this time my canvas is my life and my creation is literally living and breathing. In such creative moments, I am thankful that I, too, can participate in the work of god.
So for those of you who disrupt your lives to remake yourselves, whether you are studying a new field mid-life, quitting school to figure stuff out, changing jobs more than you think appropriate, starting projects, getting bored and starting new ones, leaving relationships that were supposed to be for life, or generally just messing up and then learning from it, my younger self has a message:
You are an alchemist, doing divine and transformative work. Keep cooking.