Rise Above The Rest By Building “Negative Capability”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

Who better to exemplify that quote than it’s writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who despite battling inner demons — culminating in his premature death from alcohol abuse — built a legacy on creating characters who fought their way both internally and externally to wealth and success.

The ability to pursue truth over comfort allows one to be more receptive to new ideas and challenges; when one values fact over feelings, behavioural and psychological patterns, ignorant or egotistical in nature, collapse. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet. The ability to transcend this was coined as “Negative Capability” by writer John Keats; “I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He believed that creative mastery, was a result of seeing the misgivings and turmoil in the world as a means of artistic expression, rather than something to be internalised as fear, insecurity and resentment.

Perennial explorer of humanity’s dark side Robert Greene expanded on Negative Capability in his book Mastery. “To put Negative Capability into practice, you must develop the habit of suspending the need to judge everything that crosses your path. You consider and even momentarily entertain viewpoints opposite to your own, seeing how they feel. You observe a person or event for a length of time, deliberately holding yourself back from forming an opinion. You seek out what is unfamiliar — for instance, reading books from unfamiliar writers in unrelated fields or from different schools of thought. You do anything to break up your normal train of thinking and your sense that you already know the truth.” he wrote, encouraging us to perpetually step out of our comfort zones to experience opinions that oppose our own. In order to influence others, we must be open to the influence of others, or at least appear to. To put oneself in the the shoes of another is the only way to learn what wisdom lies underneath. Shakespeare exemplified this in his characters, with even the heroes often showing signs of evil, forcing the audience to be question everyone’s principles, than just the antagonist’s; and further more, to be open to their views and actions as more than just automatically bad.

Negative Capability may sound like something manipulative — but if anything, it is an exercise in empathy, rather than exploitation. For example, let’s say someone holds vastly opposing political views to you. Especially with individually marketed media, it is often easy to categorise this person as an idiot, or a mean person, or a bigot. Rather than seeing them as adversaries, we can open ourselves up to the reasons why they think what they think, often discovering there aren’t as many differences as we first thought. Not only can we learn new things from them that we weren’t perceptive to before, we can actually begin to influence them. Because they feel like they are being listened to and understood — they become open to our thoughts and ideas, and an exchange of knowledge and power begins.

Artist and father on the South Coast of England, writing about creativity, productivity and philosophy.