On Aesthetic Intelligence

In 2009, Rochelle Mucha published her book exploring “aesthetic intelligence.” Mucha appeals to the origin of the word ‘aesthetics,’ rather than its current use in disciplines like philosophy. Aesthetics referred to the knowledge gained by the senses. Part of the motivation of her book is to show the value of getting all of our senses involved in our activities of work and play. This research developed from studying how professional theater groups work, and applying those insights to the world of business. Mucha emphasizes that she doesn’t offer a method (like a step-by-step formula), but rather an approach to business. She formulated basic elements that businesses could apply: presence, authenticity, and synthesis.

“To be Aesthetically Intelligent is to fully engage our senses—to see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and intuit—in all our interactions. And when we do this, we release ourselves from the shackles of mindless experiences and, consequently, constrained decision-making, problem solving, and creativity.”

Rochelle Mucha, Aesthetic Intelligence

Presence refers to more than being physically located in a particular place, like when attendance was taken in grade school and the student responds to their name with “Present.” As Mucha employs the term, presence involves “listening intently” and “being aware of ourselves.” But we also pay attention to our impact on others. An artist in the theater cannot stray from the moment; they need to be aware of the situation and the other actors. The theater demands more than the rote exercise of working through a memorized script. In our work, we often rely on our rote habits to carry us through the day, especially when our jobs have some repetition. Mucha urges people to challenge the mundane by becoming more aware of our surroundings and other people. This is what she means by being present.

“Authenticity,” writes Mucha, “is intentional characterization, thinking and preparing for whom you have to be, for that audience, for that purpose, at that time.” Telling someone that you are authentic is superficial; you need to demonstrate authenticity through actions. Artists need to know what they bring to the performance, what role they play, and how it fits into the larger picture. Workers need to also know how their role impacts the greater whole of the company and the work. While people discuss authenticity as a buzzword, they often miss the mark, according to Mucha. Reflecting on all the interactions you have in a day challenges you to understand how you want to be experienced. Mucha notes that a guiding myth of our work is that our day is planned, but in reality we face many interruptions and unexpected situations. Authenticity enables us to navigate all these situations in meaningful ways.

Synthesis occurs when people put everything they experience together. Synthesis breeds creativity, which breeds innovation. As we age, we become inundated with our habits and protocols, which hinder creativity. Mucha cites that 98 percent of two-year-olds claim to be creative, while only 2 percent of twenty-five-year-olds claim to be creative. Artists keep their creativity flowing by being experimental, but the emphasis at most jobs is to simply do what works without the freedom to freely exercise creativity. This synthesis needs to be nurtured by managers, so that workers feel free to be creative.

We often associate aesthetics with beauty, but Mucha reminds us that the word aesthetics finds its roots in sense experience. Even though priority has regularly been given to seeing and hearing, all the senses are part of our experience of the world. And all are important. Artists are often more in tune with their senses, which are used for their creative output. Too often, people don’t think about their work as ‘creative’ because the focus remains on what has worked. This explains why years later, a system that was once necessary, is used without thought or question. Let’s be honest, thinking creatively at work would take some effort at first. But the payoff would be better job satisfaction and better outcomes for the job itself. As was noted above, Mucha does not claim to provide a step-by-step formula, but she emphasizes ideas that businesses can glean form the world of the arts.

For Further Reading:

Rochelle Mucha, “Aesthetic Intelligence: What the ‘World of Business’ can Learn from the ‘World of the Arts’” (2008).

Rochelle Mucha, Aesthetic Intelligence: Reclaim the Power of Your Senses (2009).

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