What to do with your imagination

“Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement.” — Sir Ken Robinson.

You have an imagination, it’s whether or not you choose to use it that matters.

If I were to ask you right now to close your eyes and briefly imagine a small, green ball, you could do it. The details of your imagined ball may look different than mine—your ball may have a different texture, exist within a different environment, or be of a relatively different size—but you can imagine it without struggling much to do so.

And if I were to tell you to now imagine that same green ball as changing color to red, or blue, or purple, you could do that too. If I told you to imagine the ball floating in the sky, you might imagine it softly floating a lot like a balloon through clouds or through an orange sunset or foggy rain. Or if I told you to turn the ball into a heavy metal, you'd have no trouble imagining it dropping to the ground with some heft.

You are capable of imagination even without instruction on how to do it. Nobody has to tell you exactly how to imagine something, you simply close your eyes and there you are.

This is the power of imagination: because what you envision and sense and witness exists entirely within your head, you can do a lot with it, without any instruction or tutorial beforehand. Imagination is as natural as breathing for us humans.

Of course the limits of what you can imagine are entirely contained within your memories and experiences. If you didn’t know what a “ball” was you would absolutely have a hard time imagining it, how are you supposed to imagine something you have never seen before? It's akin to me asking you to imagine a drilous harbitoot: you can't do it, because I just made that up.

As Oliver Sacks writes in his book The River of Consciousness:

"Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills."

When we talk about creatives using their imagination—to dream-up wild and wonderful new things—what we’re really talking about is the ability to take a number of existing concepts and change known attributes of them in order to imagine things differently. That famous Apple motto of the late 1990s harks true: think differently.

Of course imagining things to be differently isn't a behavior reserved only to highly intelligent and capable geniuses: imagining a different world is a favorite practice in the shower, of children on the playground, of the workplace daydreamer. You’re imaginative every time you imagine anything at all, creative or not.

By improving your imaginative capabilities you improve your ability to think creatively: to dream of new possibilities.

Steve Jobs had to imagine what the first personal computer might look and feel like before it existed. Michelangelo had to imagine each statue he crafted before he began sculpting any clay or hammering any marble. In each case what came as a result was influenced by something that had come before: the large closet-sized computers of the 1980s or the cast statues of ancient times.

To improve your imagination you must first give it fuel—through experiencing new things—then identify patterns or models for modifying what you can imagine. But tread carefully: the knowledge we give ourselves can often blind us to possibilities. We may become so accustomed to how things are, or how we experience things, we fail to see things any other way. As Bruce Nussbaum explains in his book Creative Intelligence:

"We’re often so accustomed to seeing things in a certain way that we become blind to the possibility of something we can’t yet imagine. Often the way to create something wildly different is to step back and look at what stories we’ve taken for absolute truth."

When it comes to imagination, it's not enough to merely gain new knowledge and experience, we must step back and question things often too.

One of the best ways to do that is through cognitive conflict: giving yourself improbable or silly scenarios to imagine. How might a led balloon float? What would a marble statue of a mountain look like? Where is the tallest place on earth and what might happen if the tallest person jumped up on top of it?

It's only by gaining experience and information, then thinking critically—or playfully—about it that we can really begin to empower and do more with our imaginations.

Ideas are for sharing, not sheltering

Too often we hide our ideas out of fear they might break or be torn apart before they’ve had a chance to shine. We want our ideas to be perfectly polished before we share them with anyone, before we line them up in front of what could very well be a firing squad. We fear criticism and judgement and the possibility that our ideas aren’t as great as we want them to.

Where does this fear come from and is it possible the feeling of wanting to shelter our ideas is not entirely rational?

If we think of our ideas as reflections of ourselves—our capabilities, our beliefs, our IQ—then of course it’s going to be scary to expose them to others. The last thing any of us want is to be told we’re not capable, that our beliefs are wrong, or that we overlooked something obvious. We don’t want to be dumb or wrong, so we shelter our ideas until we’ve had a chance to ensure they’re “good enough.”

The trick is that ideas are never good enough until they face the light of other perspectives and opinions. Any idea can be viewed as good if it exists only within your head. It’s when the idea gets let loose in the world that it has a chance to grow, strengthen, and evolve.

When we step back and see our ideas as being their own objects, not pieces of ourselves or our intelligence, it becomes easier to share them.

And sharing our ideas matters because, despite what our fears may make us believe, when ideas are hammered and cut and torn apart they inevitably end up becoming stronger, not weaker.

The reality is that our ideas can never be destroyed, every idea you have is nearly indestructible. Once you’ve had a really good idea, it isn’t going to go anywhere. The idea will stay with you in some form or another, in the recesses of the complex biological machine that is your brain.

Our ideas simply cannot be destroyed. Just ask anyone with a strong political or religious idea, or consider the last time a catchy song got stuck in your head. Once an idea takes hold in your mind, it’s hard to get rid of it.

What happens when we expose our ideas is they don’t get destroyed, they evolve. That evolution is the process that makes ideas worthwhile, real, not merely imaginary beliefs sheltered within the confines of our imaginations.

When we expose our ideas to criticism and feedback the ideas don’t really get destroyed or damaged, they strengthen and grow. What can happen is ideas change, shaped by the opinions and information we get from others. And these changes may weaken *our* initial perspective or vision of an idea, but the fundamental idea will still be there in the foundation of whatever new or different ideas come from the feedback we get. Better, faster, bigger, stronger. If we’re open to the feedback.

And, of course, we have to remember that the feedback we get on our ideas isn’t feedback on us. We are not our ideas; our ideas are our ideas. And they need the ability to distance themselves from us if they’re to really grow.

Nothing happens with your ideas if you shelter them. If you wait for perfection you’ll be waiting your whole life. Instead: speed up the process of improving your ideas by getting them out into the world where they’ll have a chance to improve and expand based on the feedback they incur.

Why pursue creative ideas, even when you’re bound to be wrong

We tend celebrate the creative thinkers among us not merely for their successful ideas, but for their courage.

Any time someone has the guts to question the status quo, to propose an alternative way forward, or to create in the wake of destruction, they’re doing so at cost. Cost to their reputation, or well-being, or way of life.

When they turn out to be right we celebrate whatever it is they’ve unlocked: a new idea, a new way of seeing, a new object of creation. Their struggle and courage often falls behind the wayside, overshadowed by the result of their efforts.

When they’re wrong the creative person still has a tremendous impact on the world, but one that is quietly valued rather than openly and loudly celebrated. If you want to be a creative thinker this is an important lesson to be mindful of.

Sometimes, for a few of us, the courage to press forward and try something new and different is enough to captivate an audience. Even if just an audience of one, they watch by the sidelines as we struggle and climb and destroy and create endlessly. And sometimes that’s enough; to keep going, to keep trying, to keep creating.

Because what we often find when we push through in-spite of a lack of any victory, is things change. We make an impact merely by trying. As my friend Deb once told me:

“If you win, you lead. If you lose, you guide.”

Meaning: if your idea or creation or whatever works out, you end up leading others; to use your creation, to follow your way of thinking, to do or see things differently. And if your work ends up failing, you’re still adding value to those paying attention. You show them where not to go, how not to think, what not to try. If your idea or creation wins, you lead. If it fails, you guide. Both are important and necessary in the world we live in.

After more than 10 years I still blog about creativity. Not for the esteem or celebration or whatever else. I write on creativity because no matter what happens I’m influencing and inspiring others.

Even those who don’t agree with everything I write are impacted by what they read. Maybe they feel motivated to prove me wrong, or to write their own arguments, or to share and chastise. Others are inspired, moved to action, given a few moments for reflection. Either way: these small, uncelebrated ideas have an affect on those who come across them.

By putting the words out into the world I’m shaping it. And you can too. All it takes is the courage to start: writing a post, sharing an idea, recording a video or podcast, drawing and sharing what you doodle on Instagram, you name it.

When we step up to not only have ideas, but also have the courage to share them and put them to the test, we’re saying: “I want to see where this goes and anyone who’s paying attention is welcome to come along for the ride.” And that, I think, is enough to celebrate for ourselves.

Creativity is making the small change

It's easy to think of creativity as being about big ideas. We live in a world where big ideas are prized and celebrated and smaller ideas get pushed away. We celebrate those who have big ideas and we cherish the larger-than-life works they produce.

But at the heart of all big ideas are small changes: the minor influences that shape a concept, or spark an insight.

They're easy to overlook and their impact can be hard to understand, so we tend to brush them aside. Even in our own lives: small creative changes can feel unworthy of celebrating. We make a small change but because it's size is relatively small we fail to see it as being impactful.

One reason I love writing is because the influence a small change can have is immediately evident.

Changing the inflection of one word in a sentence dramatically effects what it the sentence is trying to convey. This is known as contrastive stress and by the nature of how we read it forces the reader to consider the contrast of what's being emphasized:

He said she was the last one to leave the room.

Is this "he" to be trusted? Who else may have an opinion on the matter?

He said she was the last one to leave the room.

Is the statement itself to be trusted? If he said she was last to leave the room, what other evidence is there that this is the case? What is not being said?

He said she was the last one to leave the room.

Emphasizing the second character makes the phrase almost accusatory. Who is this "she"? What other information can we learn from her?

In the world of visuals small changes can have a dramatic effect as well. No where is this clearer than the human face, where we convey seemingly simple emotions through thousands of small signals around our eyes, mouth, nose, ears, angle of our head, and so on.

If we take a simple and meaningless-out-of-context cartoon comic panel, this one from the comic strip Garfield, we can see how something as simple as drawing on eyebrows can change what the panel is trying to communicate.


Add in some angled eyebrows, a single line with a pointed center, and the mood of the panel shifts entirely:


Or inverse the angle and the mood of the panel flips too:


In each of these examples the only thing we're doing is making one very small change: emphasis of a single word, or the angle of a single line, yet with each change comes a dramatic effect.

The same point is true of the ideas we have: small, almost effortless changes can have incredible impact. From how we think about a problem to how we view someone, subtleties play a big part in the larger picture.

Perhaps part of the reason we tend to celebrate the bigger changes—the invention of the airplane or the shift from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles—over the smaller ones—deciding to wear a different type of shirt out or adding a line to the face of a cartoon character—is because the smaller changes are easier to do.

It doesn't take much to incorporate a small change in anything.

Yet we also tend to ignore making these small changes for the same reasons: if they're easy to do, they must not be worthwhile.

Of course we can see that this isn't the case. Small changes have really profound impact, particularly when you scale them: what would happen in the Garfield comic above if we drew a second angled line on Garfield the cat? What would happen if we emphasized two separate words in a sentence?

If you want to be creative you don't need to focus on big changes or global-sized problems; you merely need to look at what small changes you can make now, then make them. Not because they're easy, but because until you make the change you won't really know the affect it can have.

Creativity is making small changes. Easy to forget, but also easy to try.

Why regular rituals matter when it comes to creativity

Rituals are important when it comes to creativity.

It’s regularly discussed that routine stifles creativity, and to a degree this is absolutely true. If you stick so rigidly to routine you’ll rarely have an original experience from which to drive creative thought.

As the saying goes: you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect something different to happen as a result.

But the benefit of routine on creativity cannot be overstated. Routines are important because they give us a base of expectation: how do you know you’re experiencing something new and different if you don’t have a base, a routine, from which to measure?

Experts are all about routine. Doctors need routine to conduct surgery, airline pilots need routine to ensure a safe trip, and chefs need routine to deliver what’s promised. You wouldn’t want to visit a doctor who begins a major operation by saying “Let’s see what happens today.”


As a most famous example of the importance of routine: in 1928 Scottish physician Alexander Fleming returned to work after holiday to discover a culture contaminated with a fungus which was keeping colonies of the bacteria staphylococci at Bay. Rather than throwing the petri dish out because of the contamination, Fleming instead looked closely at the dish and commented: “that’s funny.”

After some research on the fungus and it’s affect on bacteria, Fleming ended up having had discovered penicillin, one of the first major antibiotics against many bacterial infections.

If Fleming had not maintained a professional routine, he may have never have noticed the contaminated dish in his lab.

It’s often easy to look at great creative thinkers and remark on their lack of routine or structure—Fleming’s lab was notably in a constant state of disarray and Einstein’s desk was regularly covered in mountains of unorganized papers—but what appears to be chaos on the outside is well-thought out structure to the thinker.

We need routine for many reasons. When it comes to creativity routine enables us to notice when things change, when there’s something funny or interesting worth pursuing further. We don’t get to uncover the unique and valuable if we’re in a constant state of unexpectedness. The ground is always beneath us, which makes it easier to determine when we’re flying or falling.