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The Power of Imagination
Robert Fritz

Imagination suffers from two extremes: over-glorification and under-estimation. Of course there are the famous quotes by famous people:

"Imagination is everything." Albert Einstein.

"We are what we imagine ourselves to be." Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

"The opportunities of man are limited only by his imagination. But so few have imagination that there are ten thousand fiddlers to one composer." Charles F. Kettering

"Everything you can imagine is real." Pablo Picasso

"The human race is governed by its imagination." Napoleon Bonaparte

"If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it." Jesse Jackson.

"Limitations live only in our minds. But if we use our imaginations, our possibilities become limitless." Jamie Paolinetti.

And on it goes. Well, despite my admiration for Einstein, who was one of the most realistic, no-nonsense, and hands-on practitioners of imagination, the notion that imagination is everything is just silly. It certainly is something, a critical part of the creative process. But imagination alone will lead you to be an empty dreamer without any possibility of making your vision become reality.

On the other side of the coin, those who proudly call themselves "realists" are prone to underestimate how important the ability to imagine is. "I am the sum of all my experiences," is proudly proclaimed by even serious people. If that were the case, you could never reach beyond the limitations of the sum of your experiences. This is why Einstein also said, "Imagination is more than knowledge. For Knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

I think many of the over-the-top platitudes in favor of imagination are in reaction to the tyranny of extrapolation, that habit of thinking that the future is merely an extension of the past. Without imagination, not much can happen. With it, a door is opened.

But imagination takes practice. If you are not used to the type of imagination that is common in the creative process, it is time to begin exercising it. There are a few distinct domains in which imagination is particularly useful. The first is about the outcomes you want to create. This is always the final stage of a creation, not the process, not the current reality. If you were able to create the actual result you wanted, what would it look like? What would it feel like? What do you IMAGINE it to be?

You would form a picture, or many pictures of the result. If it were a house you wanted to live in, what would that house look like? What would it feel like when you are there? What would it sound like? What would the outside be like? How about the neighborhood?

Without imagination, you would have to look around at a large variety of houses to see if any of them were to your liking. But with imagination, you can focus in on exactly the type of house you want.

Once you know the outcome, the next step is ALWAYS to define the current reality in relationship to the outcome (good old structural tension.) Once having formed structural tension, imagination takes on a new role, that of process. You can begin to design the actions you will need to take in order to accomplish your goal. If you didn't use your imagination, you would need to do endless research, trying to learn just what actions you would need to take. But, the more mastery of imagination you have, the more you can imagine the steps. And play them out in your mind so that you can begin to get a sense of the most practical strategies that will enable you to accomplish your goal.

Imagination without the work won't lead to anything. That's why Picasso's quote is really pretty crazy. I suppose he is trying to create a contrast between what you see in reality, and what is imagined and to try to validate imagination. But like most of these types of quotes, it exaggerates the point to absurdity. Yet was there a more fruitful imagination in art history than Picasso? He used it everyday, on the job, not as a form of mysticism, but as a tool of the trade. And that is the real power of imagination, as a tool, essential but not unique, just as important as picking up a paintbrush and knowing what you are doing. Let's imagine some quotes Picasso could have said.

"Imagination is nothing without a paintbrush and the ability to use it." Pablo Picasso

"Imagination keeps you from painting the same bowl of fruit day after day." Pablo Picasso

"Imagination is to painting as soy sauce is to Japanese Food." Pablo Picasso

Everyday, exercise your imagination, and you will build that capacity to see beyond the circumstances, and from that, broaden your ability to create the life you want. Without it, you won’t be able to create the life you want. But if that is ALL you did, sit around imagining what you want, despite what Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said – "We are what we imagine ourselves to be." – we would be a variation of Walter Mitty, the fictional character in James Thurber's story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." He imagines himself to be a heroic pilot, and an emergency room surgeon, but, in real life, he is not what he imagined himself to be, Kurt Vonnegut's quote notwithstanding. He is simply an ineffective dreamer who substitutes fantasy for real life.

Imagination is one among many tools of the creative process, and an essential one, one to be developed, one to work and use everyday, one to focus and drive and push and play with, but not one to glorify. Imagine the possibilities.

©2010 Robert Fritz

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Updated: 10/24/10