Let’s have a discussion about something called Openness to Experience. Just a small chat about why this concept is worth considering in our world today; both for our own individual potential as well as for the benefit of society as a whole.

But first, let me tell you about how I came to think about this as the necessary foundation for everything that’s to come on this blog.

As mentioned in our About page, The Finishing School has worked behind the scenes and around the world for centuries; influencing and shepherding some of the greatest minds in history.

Our goal has been to encourage those who seek to create a world where diversity is celebrated; where we learn from one another to create a better and just world.

The reason The Finishing School is adopting a public face is due to the troubling turn of events in the Western world. As you can also read on our About page, I – the Chief Librarian – have been voluntold honored with the task of revealing the school and its principles, to the world at large.

But while the history of The Finishing School is based around rational and considered thought, it can be difficult to speak to the benefits of constructive conversation and deep analysis when rhetorical madness and hyperbole are en vogue.

To comfort myself from these depressing thoughts, I’ve found myself hanging out in the Political Philosophy section of the library: specifically, those writers who took humanity out of the Middle Ages and into the Age of Enlightenment. I’ve found myself loitering there a lot lately – taking solace in knowing that humanity can use reason and intellect to progress to new and better forms of thought and action.

Now, as I was running my hand along the spines of these books in an act of both tactile and psychological reassurance, it occurred to me: this is either the geekiest attempt at escapism OR, what’s encapsulated here can genuinely give us insight about the world in which we currently live.

This is either the geekiest attempt at escapism OR, what’s encapsulated here can genuinely give us insight about the world in which we currently live.

Hmmm…now that I think of it…that sentence also encapsulates this entire blog…

So, how is this relevant?

One of the lessons taught at The Finishing School is that when we talk about human potential, individual attainment should also somehow relate to and benefit the wider culture and times in which we live. We are not separate from those around us, and when we each take a step further in fulfilling our potential – we have the power to impact the lives of others for the better.

When I look at the rows and rows of books housed in The Finishing School Library, I see example after example of people whose goals and work advanced not only their personal agenda, but also the society of the time.

Philosopher Immanual Kant said that the motto of the enlightenment was the latin phrase “Sapere Aude,” which translates as Dare to Know. Daring to know encouraged new and novel ideas and ways of thinking. This in turn brought about decisive action in people’s lives and changed the course of history.

The writers of the Enlightenment were certainly divergent thinkers – able to look at the current status of western society and and see what it could be. They embraced new thoughts and new experiences, had boundless curiosity and moved away from the religious and political dogma that had begun to be questioned during the Renaissance.

In short, the writers that influenced the era of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, possessed Openness to Experience as a personality trait. Partly because of that, they helped precipitate the French Revolution, radically altered England’s idea of liberty, progress and tolerance, transformed education across all of Europe and laid the foundation for the government of the United States of America by being major influences on the founding fathers.

That is seriously not bad for a legacy.

So, what is Openness to Experience?

There is something called the 5 Factor Model that western psychologists use to describe the human personality. There are benefits and limitations to using a model like this – and of course – no model can really capture the essence of what it is to be human. But, models such as this do have their merits.

Openness to experience is one of those 5 factors. Interestingly, while similar in nature, different cultures do attach slightly different attributes to openness to experience. So, to really get what openness to experience is, you need to be ok with ambiguity…of course, if you are ok with ambiguity, that probably means you’re open to experience…

When we look at openness to experience, we all fall somewhere along the spectrum. If we are higher on the spectrum, we are interested in delving into new ideas, encountering a wide variety of feelings and participating in new activities. Those who are closed to experience tend to see themselves as traditional and practical.

Morally, it is not better or worse to be open or closed to experience. However, when we look at how we might move society forward in an inclusive and progressive fashion – it is worth looking at those who have done so and see where they fit on the spectrum.

To be clear and transparent, those who have traversed the halls of The Finishing School have been pretty far along the openness spectrum. So, while it’s not morally wrong to be closed to experience, history would indicate that if you want to expand your potential and add to the world in positive ways…well, I’m just saying.

It is no accident, therefore, that we encourage the trait of openness to experience. As described in the research of McCrae and Greenberg:

“Open people are imaginative and appreciative of art and beauty, and have rich and deep emotional reactions. They readily adopt new ways of doing things, have wide intellectual interests, and tend to be socially and politically liberal.”

According to the Chinese model of openness to experience, there are six facets of openness:

  • Novelty
  • Diversity
  • Divergent Thinking
  • Aesthetics
  • Interpersonal Tolerance &
  • Social Sensitivity.

So someone might be Open to only one or several of these facets of life.

For the sake of this discussion and for what The Finishing School hopes to accomplish in each of our lives – we’re looking to expand openness on all these fronts.

Let’s pick an enlightenment thinker that I particularly like: John Locke. One of John Locke’s famous quotes states:

“Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company and reflection must finish him”.

Now, let me tell you a secret. John Locke was a member of The Finishing School. I can tell you that because he totally pissed off the school administration in the 16th century when he kind of stole that quote from us. School archives state that the head of the school at the time went ballistic with intellectual indignation. But when you’re a secret organization…well, it’s kind of hard to protect your intellectual copyright.

I like that he was ballsy enough to take the quote. He also used to exchange love poems with philosopher Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham, so the man obviously appreciated a brainy woman. Gotta like that. Then, he came to live with her and her husband when he came back to England from exile. Interesting to be a fly on those walls.

He was both a physician and a philosopher. He wrote about religious tolerance and stated that all humanity was by nature free and equal. His argument for people having the right to life, liberty and property was just part of the reason he was a major influence on both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. His sentiments ring loud and clear in The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Locke’s notion of equality was clearly divergent from thinkers of the past who espoused monarchy based on divine right. He was open to new thoughts, new experiences, and he mixed with a wide variety of thinkers. While he might not demonstrate all of the six facets of the Chinese model of openness to experience, he is certainly high on the spectrum of most of them.

This openness to experience is a hallmark of enlightenment thinkers and I would suggest, was a key personality trait that led to changing the western world in favor of equality, justice and the notion of progress. These are principles on which I, and those whose footsteps I follow at The Finishing School, base our life upon.

If these ideas came about in part because of an openness to experience and made such a positive impact on the world in their time, could it have the same impact today? How could embracing new experiences and being open to the world around us change each one of us and the lives that we live? What would it mean in our personal lives? What would it mean for the wider world if we developed this trait in our children – and each other?

Could encouraging this trait possibly increase tolerance to diversity – decreasing dogmatic approaches to complex problems and help us to truly see and respect each other as fellow human beings?

Historically, those who have moved society forward in these ways have appeared to be, by and large, high on the openness scale. Surely novel ideas and divergent thinking are key to helping us move us past our current ideological stalemate.

When I see what’s happening on the world stage lately, I’m thinking that starting another enlightenment would not go amiss.

What would another enlightenment look like? How could being more open to experience change your life? My life? Change our society?

I’m going to ponder this point a bit more, but for now I have an appointment with a Collections Librarian.

Until then, Sapere Aude – Dare to Know.