Imagination is the faculty of the mind that forms new ideas, associations, and see’s possibilities. It is an under-appreciated yet critical element of creativity and innovation. Many writers and psychologists have championed its superpowers over the last century from Napoleon hill to Albert Einstein. It is the beating heart of invention, change and building a life of meaning and purpose, yet how many of us have ever been taught to use this superpower to its full potential?
Several areas of the brain are involved in Imagination such as the visual & auditory cortex, hippocampus, and executive functioning system. Imagination has incredible influence over our lives as our minds are constantly making associations, filling in gaps and playing the what if game. In terms of uncertainty the shadow side of imagination can be one of anxiety if not managed. Our negative bias can cloud how we first see an event; however, the other side of this lens is what if things go well or what possibility I am yet to see.
Learning to innovate
Sadly, our educational systems do not fully celebrate creative thinking or imagination. Creative guru Ken Robinson who just recently died had called on school systems to foster different ways of learning to inspire students to access their creativity. His Ted Talks are inspiring.
As a result, many of us label ourselves as lacking imagination and feel more logical or analytical in nature. Aoife recalls her own early creative experiences “I have a vivid memory of being in primary school and deciding that I was not creative. We were painting swans and mine was an ugly duckling, I looked at it and decided that art and creativity was not my thing”. So, we abandon our Art or dreams of being an astronaut in favor of logic, reason, and rote learning. Einstein said Logic will take you from A to B, whilst Imagination will take you everywhere.
Our imagination is not related to how good at Art we are or how funny or wacky our ideas are. Imagination starts with being an observer and thinker of possibilities, gaps before our eyes and new ways of doing something. If we allow space in our day to process our experiences, we will begin to see the mind naturally starts to create and see connections. You could apply Imagination to any Occupation in life without ever lifting a paintbrush, it is seeing and thinking of new possibilities which are key ingredients of innovation and agility.
It was not until Aoife left college that she realised how much imagination and creativity there is in problem solving. “I had a job to design and test plans to aid the development of hardware and software, I basically had to break the product that was in development, root out the bugs and replicate how I had caused the system to crash, I loved it. I realized that I was creative”.
I think of imagination as an inner muscle that can be trained, and with practice will grow stronger. There are cognitive and improvisation games we can play to warm up these muscles just like going to the gym for your mind. Poet Laureate Jason Reynolds facilitates fun & supportive brain yoga sessions live on Instagram for young people as examples of what is possible.
Covid & the Spirit of reinvention.
Before podcasts and the self hep industry, we sought our solace and understanding of the human condition within the Arts & literature. Reading fiction encourages us to fill in the gaps, make interpretations and picture a world beyond our own. I returned to poetry of Mary Oliver and John O Donohue during Lockdown and found it so nourishing for my imagination. In Charles Bukowski’s poem No leaders please, the poet challenges people to “reinvent yourself because you must” this may sound harsh and exhausting if taken literally, however I wonder if it was to warn us of getting stuck in rigid ways of thinking and being in the world that sets us up for difficulty.
Covid has taught us that we can change & find new ways of doing things, particularly when we have no choice. Necessity is the mother of all invention after all, many businesses had to change the way they were thinking and operating to survive. Their physical environments were transformed, occupations adapted e.g. a coffee shop became a grocer, Gin distillery started making hand sanitiser, Therapy sessions were delivered on Microsoft teams. This ability to reinvent starts with imagination.
A key skill & overlap between mental health and coming up with creative ideas is developing psychological flexibility, which involves holding our thoughts & judgements lightly whilst moving towards our values. Aoife views “the lesson of our imagination is not to censor yourself, allow the ideas to spring forward, if we judge ourselves for bad ideas then we put our filter up and we lose the good ideas as well”. To feel comfortable doing this at work, we need to create & feel psychologically safe, a culture of trust and sharing & celebrating the early rough ideas is required to build a bridge to the hidden treasure.
If innovation, agility & creative leadership is the vehicle to get our country started again, then imagination will be its engine. Leaders need to demonstrate and lead by example, individuals & companies that embrace imagination & psychological safety will see their ability to innovate and find a way through Covid 19 greatly improve.
Aoife is a circus skills teacher &performer. To connect firstname.lastname@example.org