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.

Imagine someone else with your ideas in order to see them through

Your challenge is this: the next time you find yourself faced with an idea — wondering “what if?” — go ahead and imagine what might happen if someone else approached you with the same idea, in its final form. Imagine them showing you exactly what you were going to do. How might you react? Would you be jealous? Frustrated with yourself? Is the feeling of seeing someone else build your idea enough to motivate you to carry the idea forward yourself?

Finding the motivation to see our creative ideas come to fruition can often be daunting, particularly when the idea is something we’ve never tried before. But if we can change our perspective and imagine a world where someone else took the risk, and what might happen when they do, that can be just enough to get us moving on the idea. Enough to take a small risk, or plan out next steps, anything to push the idea toward reality.

Imagining the idea as belonging to someone else also frees us up to envision how they might create it differently. Maybe they have more resources available than we do, in which case we can get a signal for what things we might need in order to really push the idea through. Or maybe the person we envision moving the idea forward does something more bold than we’d be comfortable with. Seeing the idea come to fruition — and whether or not it’s successful in our eyes — might be enough to help motivate us to see it through, and it also helps us better understand the potential of our idea.

Now think of that solution this other person showed you. What do you think of it?

If you find it interesting, but otherwise useless, that’s a good sign the idea needs more thought and attention to make it useful.

If it’s something you would cherish or enjoy and really feel connected to, that’s a good sign the idea is worthwhile.

If the idea is something that you, even alone, would honestly be interested in—even if it came from another person—at least then you know that pursuing the idea can do something for yourself. That alone can be fulfilling, but it’s also likely that it will be appealing to others too.

If you struggle to imagine anyone else coming up with your idea, an easy way to see what it might be like is to ask a friend to present the idea to you. Ask them to present it as though they had come up with the idea in the first place and followed it through, to make it a reality. Not only will doing so help you envision what the idea might feel like in reality, it can also help spur a new understanding of the idea itself, as your friend is likely to add their own twists and perspectives to it when they present it to you.

More often than not, we believe that ideas are ours, unique to us, and that imagining them coming from anyone else can feel like a betrayal. That isn’t true, and sounds silly when we think of it that way, but the notion of our unique ideas coming from anyone else can be just enough to block us from moving them through the idea stage to the execution one.

As a result: we sit by idly daydreaming about what could be, what we might be able to accomplish, or whether or not our ideas are worthwhile. But imagining someone else coming up with and executing on your idea first can help overcome that initial stage of stickiness.

Why we lose our child-like wonder

To a child, being a non-expert is an asset for growth.

Being a naive child means learning how the world works (or doesn’t work) is as easy as trying something, making mistakes, and adapting.

But as the child grows up, he or she comes to be an expert on how to live within the bounds of what becomes known; to do so ensures a general happy and healthy life. You don’t have to look very far to see how this transformation occurs, how we each go from naive toddler to knowledgable youth then finally into experts as adulthood.

An empty box becomes a way to efficiently move a lot of stuff. A sheet of paper becomes a canvas for capturing notes or drawings. A bowl is a convenient container of food, while a cup is an optimal way of transferring liquids. If I put a spoon in front of you, you’d likely be able to tell me exactly what it’s for, but struggle to come up with things it’s explicitly not for.

Often the cost of experience is imagination. We trade one for the other.

To the naive child, an empty box is anything they can imagine it to be: a space shuttle, a race car, a store front, a home, a giant shoe, you name it. A sheet of paper isn’t merely a canvas, it’s a yet-to-be-folded airplane, or boat, or hat. A bowl is a drum, or a helmet, or wheel, and a cup is a magnifying glass or secret agent speaker phone. A spoon to a toddler is a guitar, a boomerang, a drumstick, a mirror, or any number of other things.

As we grow and become experts in life and work, it becomes more and more difficult to see around what we (or society) expect things to be. As a result, experts are only good at what’s proven. Creativity comes secondary to what we already know and believe. It’s difficult to be anything but the expert after so long, because you can’t forget what you’ve learned. We don’t grow up to become more child-like.

Yet to remain creative, we must learn to be an expert while maintaining a child-like spirit. We must learn about optimization and efficiency, but remain curious about why they matter.

Never losing child-like wonder, constantly asking “why” or being willing to play with your food, all allow you to instill the sense of naivety into what you do best. Which leaves the door open for what you don’t know you might not know.

Multiplying what’s possible to imagine

In a regular deck of 52 playing cards there are 8.06e+67 possible combinations.

More than 80,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000 possible ways to shuffle the deck.

If every human since the beginning of time were to shuffle a deck of cards at random, every hour of every day, the odds of any two people ever getting the same hand is astronomically close to impossible.

And that’s just 52 nodes of connection.

Your brain has billions of nodes. Multiply the possible hands of a deck of cards by just one billion and the number is unfathomable. Yet there it is, sitting between our ears.

This is the power of factorials.

When we add just one thing to the connections in our brain, it multiplies what ideas are possible to conceive. Of course the process isn’t as straight forward as we’d like, there still needs to be some level of understanding and incubation for ideas to connect, but a little information can go a long way when it comes to ideas.

One new book you read, one piece of artwork you stumble on, one previously unheard song, one minute of journaling, each seems subtle and unimportant yet each can have tremendous impact.

Particularly if those one things occur more often than once.

We don’t have to seek out the most captivating or life-changing inspiration. All we need is one small, new bit of information (another card in the deck) and suddenly what’s possible to imagine multiples.

The differences between imagination, creativity, and innovation

Like any toolbox, our minds have an assortment of tools available for us to utilize whenever we need to.

Included in our mental toolbox are cognitive processes, clusters of which compose of three primary ones involved in ideation: imagination, creativity, and innovative thinking.

Unless we know the differences between the tools at our disposal, we may find ourselves attempting to hammer in a nail using a screwdriver. It might get the job done, but it’s definitely not ideal.

Imagination is about seeing the impossible, or unreal. Creativity is using imagination to unleash the potential of existing ideas in order to create new and valuable ones. Innovation is taking existing, reliable systems and ideas and improving them.

Typically, we often confuse these three for one or the other.

Dreams at night are a type of imaginative thinking; what you see when you dream isn’t really happening, and in most instances what you dream cannot physically happen. A great example of this is a recurring dream I have, where a blue-colored cat teaches me how to fly.

When solving a novel problem at work or school, we rely on creativity to generate an answer or idea for overcoming the problem. We might know what the problem entails, but we can only solve it by combining ideas or diverging from our focus in order to see what we couldn’t see before. Creativity very much deals with reality, but the solutions we generate as a result of creativity are difficult to measure.

Lastly, innovation is what takes place when we look at an existing system or process and find a way to improve it, often utilizing both imagination and creativity.

The biggest difference between each of these is the frame of focus we have when attempting to utilize each.

With imagination, our focus can be on things that are impossible. Creativity requires our focus to be on things that might be possible, but we can’t be sure until we explore them further. While innovation entails being focused on what is right in front of us, something that can be measurably improved in the here and now.

It’s important to know the differences, and to know when you’re using one mode of thinking as opposed to the other, and what the context is for that reasoning.

Where imagination simply requires that we have some context from which to envision an idea, creativity requires that we have knowledge of the idea, motivation and freedom to explore and tinker, intelligence to see what makes the convergence of any set of ideas possible, and then the energy to see the process through.

Innovation takes both creativity and imagination further, focusing on existing systems or ideas that can be evolved naturally.

Where imagination can tell a remarkable story, creativity can make imagination possible. Innovation uses imagination and the power of creativity to measurable improve on what exists today.

If you’re trying to improve a process or idea at work or school, you should focus on thinking with innovation in mind. Innovation is the way to see how something might work in the future.

If, alternatively, you’re looking to generate a new way to solve a problem in your life, utilizing creative thinking is the way to go. Be sure, in those instances, you have everything you need to think creatively.

Lastly, if you want to see things from an entirely different perspective, work to build your imagination.