Get real!
Have a little imagination!

You’ve probably heard both of these exclamations directed at you at one time or another. Why do we insist on being “real” and yet place such value on imagination?

We generally don’t like being around someone who is living in a fantasy world. We suggest they have a “reality check”, “get real”, or “come back to earth”. What we’re saying is that they should be realistic in their thinking.

imagine-create-learnAnd yet, we reward those who are imaginative. Actors earn huge salaries for acting out imagined stories. Authors gain fame selling novels. And innovative and visionary business leaders, like Steve Jobs, develop new products and we consider them geniuses for turning their imagination into reality.

Imagination is creative power at work

Have you ever watched young children at play? They imagine a lot! And they are busy, always busy. That’s because imagination is creative power at work. Imagination is active, that’s what distinguishes imagination from daydreaming. Daydreaming is passive. Imagination is active.

Imagination is creative. It’s inventing things, creating things, building things. Imagination is a key skill in problem solving. Imagination is the secret ingredient in innovation. Imagination is how buildings get built, new technology is discovered, and solutions are found.

Without imagination we would never have put a man on the moon. But because someone imagined it, and made it happen, all sorts of discoveries and technological innovations became reality.

GE: imagination at workThe technology company GE (General Electric), uses this as their corporate slogan often found next to the logo in advertising: “imagination at work”. The idea is that they are putting imagination to work, creating new technologies, and that is a good thing. It makes you want to buy their products and work for them!

Building a realistic foundation

But imagination can’t create something out of nothing. You still need some raw material to work with. So what are the building blocks of a realistic imagination?

1. Memories

Studies have shown that memories are important building blocks for imagination.

…in order to create imagined future events, the individual must be able to remember the details of previously experienced ones extract various details and put them together to create an imaginary event, a process known as the constructive-episodic-simulation. [link]

2. Observed reality

In addition to memory, a keen observation of reality will lend itself to the use of imagination. Seeing a round rock and imagining that shape as a wheel, led to the invention of wagons, carts, bicycles, cars, and eventually the iPod.

Being able to see shapes, patterns, and ideas in the world around you and then project these observations into your imagination for manipulation and reuse, will help fuel the fires of innovation and invention.

3. Truth

After all, that’s what reality is, truth. And when our imaginations have truth to build with, the things we’ll create have power because they resonate with us on a deeper level.

As a teenager, I loved reading western novels by Louis L’amour. They are novels, fiction, imagination at work. Yet he built them on a foundation of truth. L’amour spent a great deal of time in research, study, and field trips to make sure that his descriptions of the landmarks and terrain of the American West were accurate. Even without a personal familiarity with those landmarks, the realism of his descriptions lent an air of believability to the story he imagined for his readers.

A couple tips

1. keep a journal – You don’t have to write in it every day, but keeping a journal will sharpen your memory, your observational skills, and ultimately your imagination.

2. work hard – Daydreaming is lazy, but putting a realistic imagination to work is just that, work. No one accused Steve Jobs of being lazy. He put a lot of energy into harnessing his imagination. So do your kids. Learn from them.

3. have fun – It is imagination after all. You should have fun with it. Your kids are having fun, so should you. Enjoy the creative process of using your realistic imagination to create wonderful new ideas.

Whether you are writing novels, inventing the next technological breakthrough, or just playing with your kids, these three building blocks and three tips should help you harness the creative power of a realistic imagination.

And if you’ve got other ideas for how to put realistic imagination to work, please share them in the comments.

photo credit: Nicolas Raymond