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.