imagine: reshape reality
part two: creativity functions, chapter 8
“Reality was what went on inside people’s heads.” — Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures
Allow me to start with a story…
“Cover band? What do you want to be in a cover band for?” His father just didn’t get it. When their van entered the empty driveway of the Brookside Theatre, he tried to explain it to himself too.
It was a small gig in a small town. Calling this place a theatre was on the verge of a fraud. It was more of a community center, really. The hall was so small you could walk from door to stage in ten steps. 120 foldable chairs were arranged in ten rows. The ceiling was so low he could almost touch it. And the soundman came with the place.
Backstage, which was more of a side-stage, he held a small mirror in his left hand and carefully put on his makeup with the right. He heard the people filling the small hall, dragging their chairs.
When the audience is big enough, there’s energy in the air no-one can resist. With 120 people in a community center, you just cannot know how it will be like. His band is merely the echo of these people’s memories. He knows that, but he also knows that with some luck, the echoes will be strong enough for magic to happen.
He carefully puts on his wig. The soundman, who is also responsible for the lighting, turns off the lights in the small hall. For a second, he imagines he is going to sing to thousands of people, but this place is so tiny, he can actually look at each person in the eyes. He can hear their thoughts, and he wonders if they can hear his.
They start to play their first song. Well, it’s not really theirs, of course. He closes his eyes, but he can sense the stillness of the people sitting so close to the stage. When his guitar plays the final chord of the song, he opens his eyes and scans their faces. He looks them in the eyes again, and suddenly he knows he can turn them into dreamers if only for two hours.
“GOOD EVENING, ROMFORD!”
Before anyone has a chance to consider the dissonance, the band starts to play the second song, and then the next one. The guitarist plays as if he is playing in the Wembley Stadium, and for a moment, the blue walls of the small community center dissolve, and everyone forgets that they aren’t.
“This last one is especially for you. You made it so far in life, you should be so proud.” He gently plays his blue 12-strings guitar, and a chorus of 120 dreamers joins him singing…
“We can be heroes, just for one day…”
Later, in the van, removing the leftovers of his makeup, he thinks about the 70-year-old man who got up and started to dance. He recalls the joy in the man’s eyes — the joy only timeless music can spark. His father’s voice echoes in his mind: “Cover band? Cover bands don’t change the world…” and he smiles to himself.
Tonight, if only for this one night and only for 120 people, he did change the world.
Making Things Up
The story you’ve just read is a figment of my imagination. What I saw in my mind before I started writing, never existed. At least, not as I imagined it. At the same time, almost every detail in this story is rooted in something real — something I saw, or heard, or experienced. My imagination just “filled the gaps,” arranged some details differently, and added a background story. I took some ingredients and cooked a new, personal dish.
Here’s “the making of” version of this short story.
When my son and I planned our vacation in London, we looked for a music show. When we came across a David Bowie tribute, we were immediately hooked, and so we booked two tickets to the Absolute Bowie show in Romford. I didn’t give much thought to the location, except for verifying the transportation details. In other words, once again, I came without a clear notion of what to expect.
And so, we found ourselves on a Friday evening in a somewhat sleepy town in east London, looking for the Brookside Theatre. Coming in a train from the center of London, this was like landing in a different country. We followed the navigation instructions, but when we arrived at the destination address, we didn’t find anything reassembling a theatre. Instead, we entered a small, one-story building, and found ourselves in what looked like a place for the people of the neighborhood to gather for some social activities. The hall was indeed small, and there were precisely 120 folding chairs that someone just finished arranging. As people began to gather, it was already obvious that they are all living in town, and the vast majority of them were around the age of my parents. And then the show started.
The show was great from the first minute, but for a major part of it, I couldn’t stop being fully aware of the dissonance between the energy of the band and the audience sitting stiffly just two meters in front of the stage. It felt like a surprise party for the wrong person. But as the show continued, song after song, and costume after costume, the audience opened up. They were really reliving their memories, and they were grateful for that. And when few of them stood up and started to dance, it was magical.
So here I was experiencing this, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt all these bits of reality floating in my mind waiting to become part of something. And this is when I remembered a sentence I’ve heard so many times — the sentence ending each episode of Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative podcast: “Cover bands don’t change the world.” This was the missing piece of the puzzle. After what I had just experienced, I could use this theme both as context and as a punch. My imagination just had everything it needs to reshape reality.
Imagination is a superpower. It is the core of human existence. Together with the ability to act and realize many of the things we imagine, it makes us unique among all creatures on our planet. Anything ever created by human beings, from music to novels, from science theories to new products, started with a mental image of something that hadn’t existed before. Any creation, from the most trivial ones like planning a dinner party to a world-changing invention, starts in someone’s imagination.
Let’s try something.
Close your eyes. Well, after reading this paragraph. Close your eyes and clear your mind. Now imagine a landscape different than anything you’ve ever seen — a surreal landscape with surprising shapes, colors, and features. Don’t imagine it as a picture. Imagine yourself standing there, feeling the wind or the rain or the heat or the cold. Imagine the sounds and the smells. Don’t open your eyes and let yourself immerse in the experience. Now, imagine a surreal animal approaching. It can be cute or intimidating, it can be in the distance or just inches away from you. Imagine how you feel, how you react, and your next move.
When you open your eyes, take five minutes to write down what you saw, what you sensed, and how you felt. Or, create a drawing, a sketch, or a collage inspired by your experience.
Whatever you managed to see in your mind and capture once you opened your eyes, it is something unique. No two people doing this exercise will ever see the same thing. Whatever you saw and sensed was created only by your mind, and it was derived from your unique mind-pantry. This ability to reshape reality — to create an alternate reality — is the one thing that pushes humankind forward. Imagination is the cornerstone of everything we do, and it goes way beyond just creating new technology or writing a play. Even the most fundamental human interactions depend on some layers of imagination. I used my imagination before I kissed my wife to be for the first time, and I use my imagination whenever one of my kids tells me about their day at school. Imagination is the basis of empathy as much as it is the engine for personal, organizational, and global growth.
If You Can Imagine Something…
So, what does it mean to imagine? Guess what. The Oxford dictionary offers us quite a simple definition. But unlike previous definitions we used, this one is a bit too simplistic.
form a mental image or concept of.
Well, after doing the imaginary landscape exercise, it is easy to see how this definition could work: it describes exactly what we just did — we formed an image in our mind. But there are some nuances we need to consider if we want to understand imagination in the context of Creativity. The first one lies in the fact that this definition does not mention anything about how close to reality the image we form is. If I’m sitting in front of someone, and I close my eyes and still being able to “see” them in front of me, I’m forming a mental image of them. I’m practically imagining. Whether this has anything to do with Creativity, is an excellent question. Even without answering this question, it demonstrates just how the definition above can mislead us. Memories easily fall into this definition, and while memories can spark Creativity (as in the act of retrieving information from our mind-pantry), many acts of memory have nothing to do with being creative.
In a search for a more accurate definition, I came across a classic psychology book written by Prof. Robert S. Woodworth. Woodworth coined the term Mental Manipulation, and I believe this term captures the essence of imagination we are aiming for. In the context of Creativity, we use imagination as a tool to manipulate reality in our minds.
“The materials manipulated in imagination are usually facts previously perceived, and to be available for mental manipulation they must now be recalled; but they are not merely recalled — they are rearranged and give a new result that may never have been perceived.”
“Reasoning consists in seeing relationships that exist between facts, and imagination in putting facts into new relationships.”1
Woodworth’s description doesn’t just define imagination, it also frames it in the context of the previous functions we discussed. Experience and Observe are the input functions responsible to collect bits of information. Wonder is where we uncover the potential of the ingredients we have collected. The role of imagination is to reconstruct a different reality — a reality in which something new or different exists — by rearranging and manipulating the ingredients we have collected.
And this definition — “putting facts into new relationships” — refutes the first myth in how we usually think of imagination: nothing is imagined in a void. Just like Creativity as a whole, imagination is always built on raw materials and ingredients we have previously collected. The more abundant our experience is, and the more diverse the things we observe are, the variety of things we can mentally create becomes exponentially bigger.
The second misconception most of us have when thinking about imagination is that it is used by adults mainly for creating art. No one would argue that a fiction writer can write without being imaginative. No one will say that a film director, a painter, a custom designer, or a composer can manage to create anything meaningful without an active imagination. At the same time, most people and organizations don’t acknowledge the connection between imagination and earthly things like leadership, innovation, and business. If you look at the search trends as captured by Google2, it is easy to see that people naturally connect imagination with art, but when it comes to innovation, business, and leadership, the association is much, much weaker. On average, people search for the combination of “imagination” and each of these terms 80% less than they search for the combination of “imagination” and “art”.
The truth is, any of these domains and many others rely heavily on our imaginative skills. Nobody can lead, manage, research, and develop, based only on facts and data. Imagination is the key to achieving any goal: personal and organizational. In fact, it is the key to defining goals to begin with. If you can’t imagine a different reality, you will not be able to create it.
To better understand how the Imagine function affects practically any aspect in our personal and professional lives, we should go through three steps that form a cycle pushing us forward toward a better future — a future shaped by us.
Realize an Alternative Reality Exists
The following will sound like something from The Matrix: most of us are captured in what we perceive. Most people and organizations derive their actions from what they see in front of them: data and facts (or at least what they perceive as data and facts). Our brain naturally fills the gaps and complements the picture using our imagination, but in most cases, it does so using our predefined mental model. If you are about to cross the road and you stop by a red traffic light, you can imagine that in less than a minute it will change to green. Your mind creates a scene that still doesn’t exist, but it is based on a mental model you know (or assume) to apply to the situation you are in.
If we wish to create anything new — a surprising solution to a problem we are facing or a new groundbreaking product — we need to be convinced first there could be a reality different than the one we are currently experiencing. This is not an exercise in positive thinking: we are not trying to convince ourselves that “we can do it.” Acknowledging a different reality can, in fact, exist, even before having the vision of how this reality looks like, is necessary if we wish to break the chains of our mental model and assumptions. We must acknowledge the existence of a reality different than the one in which we are facing the challenge we aim to overcome.
Now, when you consider the importance of having a vision, which we will discuss next, realizing that a different reality can exist seems like an obvious step. But the reason most of us don’t have ground-breaking, crazy visions, is we don’t see beyond our current reality — we don’t genuinely believe an alternative is possible. If our imagination is a spaceship that can take us to incredible places, we must acknowledge the possibility that such places exist, or we won’t have any reason to launch it and start the journey.
Although this alternate reality is quite abstract at this stage, realizing the potential of its mere existence requires us to be imaginative.
That’s exactly what Albert Einstein managed to do. Most of the work Einstein is known for — the work that made him the ultimate symbol of modern science — was based solely on thought experiments. Instead of using lab equipment, Einstein used his imagination to explore, observe, and experiment. But that fact alone does not begin to capture Einstein’s greatness. Imagine you are a scientist and all your colleagues, and the scientific establishment as a whole takes for granted a very specific (and in retrospect, wrong) description of reality. Imagine everything you read, and anyone you talk to repeats the same classical explanations and assumptions; only they are treated as facts. In Einstein’s case, it was Newton’s description of space and time as absolute. Only someone with strong imaginative skills — someone who uses imagination as a first-class tool — could have assumed there is another option and that what everyone around him celebrates as common knowledge is actually false. The realization that such a possibility exists and worth pursuing even before having a solid counter-theory is nothing less than remarkable.
If this sounds familiar, it is not by mistake. Imagining the option of an alternative reality is tightly connected with the Wonder function. If wondering and challenging assumptions open the door to a universe of possibilities, realizing some of these options can be exist is the leap of faith that helps us cross the doorway.
The next step might happen at the exact same time as realizing another reality may exist, or it might take a while to come up with. It is all about having a vision of how this alternate reality might look like.
See a New Reality in Your Mind
When you realize that whatever you see, sense, and know about reality today, is at best one frame in a timeline that could lead practically anywhere, the next step is having a vivid vision of the place this path can lead to. It is a place you create in your mind — a figment of your imagination. Portraying this place — this alternate reality — is the first active step toward creating something new.
Any creation you see around you started with a vision someone had. It can be a world-changing vision or something more personal or local in scope. But it always reshapes reality — if only by adding something new to it that didn’t exist before.
Before there was Netflix®, Reed Hastings had a vision of a service that didn’t exist at the time. He didn’t know if it was feasible or financially viable. Still, he had a vivid picture in his mind of a different reality than the one known in the 1990s — a reality in which people pay a flat fee and get in return as many movies as they want delivered to them without having to go out to a video rental store.
Before the first iPhone prototype was sketched, let alone designed and manufactured, Steve Jobs had a vision — a figment of his imagination. In his vision, everyone carried a handheld computer with them wherever they go, and they used it for play, consume content, and communicate with others, and not necessarily by making a phone call.
Before the Theory of Relativity existed, Albert Einstein had a vision that there is a unified, coherent explanation that can cover any phenomenon we see in the universe. And while Einstein didn’t manage to phrase this unified theory, everything he did and any scientific creation he came up with, were derived from his pursuit after this theory — from seeing the vision, if not the details, of such a theory3.
A vision is always an imaginary creation — a necessary step toward a physical creation. To change reality, you have to first see a new reality in your mind.
Back in 2015, I was a Quality Manager in a High-Tech company and a photographer trying to leverage his hobby into a sustainable career. These two worlds rarely blended together. I enjoyed both, and they were significant pieces in the puzzle of my life, but apart from that, they didn’t connect. Then, a good friend of mine died. It was the first time I experienced an unexpected loss of someone close who had so much ahead of him.
One of the things I kept thinking about in the weeks following his death is the theme of many of the conversations Oshik and I had. I often had a strong and decisive point of view, and he often tried to show me a different perspective — not necessarily because he held the opposite view, but simply because there are always different ways to see the same thing. I understood only in retrospect that my lack of ability to see alternative interpretations of various situations was getting in my way. But I realized something even more profound. I realized that my work as a photographer was the antidote. Everything I did when I held a camera was the complete opposite of “being stuck with one point of view.” With a camera on my hands, I managed to create, not just accept, new points of view. And this revelation made me wonder: how can I apply the mindset I naturally have when creating art to other areas in my life? And if I will be able to do that, won’t others be able to do the same?
At that point — after experiencing my friendship with Oshik and its absence once he was gone, after reflecting on our conversations, and after wondering about my flexibility and rigidness — at that point, my mind shaped a vision. In my vision I saw people naturally doing what I was doing when I went on a photo walk: exploring, observing, experiencing, and imagining; I saw people gradually learning to change their perspective and see things differently; I saw people “working out” in a creativity gym; and I saw them applying their “new” skills to all aspects of their personal and professional lives. I didn’t see the details yet, but I practically saw my future creation.
It was a pure work of imagination. I had nothing but neurons firing inside my head. It wasn’t a plan, nor was it a design. It was just an imaginative idea created from the ingredients I had previously collected. But without this vivid vision, I couldn’t have done the first step of creating a different version of reality: a reality in which the seempli platform exists.
In the journey to explore Creativity, the act of envisioning a different instance of reality is where something new is formed, if only in our mind. Up to this point, we consumed ingredients and identified their potential. The mental creation of a vision turns the semi-random set of experiences, observations, and insights we have collected into a potential creative outcome. It is where we begin to transform from thinkers to creators.
Imagining a Path Toward Your Vision
Imagining a new variant of reality in which something new — the product of our imagination — exists, is like the birth of a star. It is when fragments of material floating in space suddenly take shape and form something new. But this is just the beginning of a new journey — the journey of realizing the idea and introducing it back to the real world. Two functions in the Creativity Operating System are responsible for that: Interact and Evolve, but imagination also plays a vital role in bridging the gap between a mental creation and its realization.
Let’s face it, many of us have many ideas that can fall under the definition of reshaping reality. As creative as these ideas can be, without taking the first step to implementing them, they remain just ideas4. To make this first step, one needs motivation and passion5. But unlike other things we aim to achieve, the road we need to take to get to the reshaped reality we imagine often needs to be as imaginative as the endgame. The path that leads to realizing our vision is often is as visionary as the destination.
We often confuse finding a path toward the realization of our vision with having a plan or a design. Sometimes, a plan or design is all you need. In other cases, we have to imagine the path first, just as we see the end result in our mind. Think of an author writing a novel. The author’s vision is the overall lineup of the story or even just its key idea. To get there, the writer will need to imagine characters, locations, chains of events, and so on. It is a process that starts with imagining the path at a high-level. At some point, the author turns this abstract path into a detailed plan (or a lineup) for their story, but it starts as a collection of imaginative ideas derived from the vision.
Similarly, after I came up with the vision of seempli, I started to imagine the gameplay, different types of players, and eventually also the building blocks that make the platform. It was an act of imagination, which was followed by actual design and implementation. And this is by no mean a one-time activity. Whenever a new game or a new feature is added to the platform, I imagine first this new step in the path toward my vision. Only then, it can be designed and implemented.
I’ll admit that this breakdown to three distinct steps — acknowledging the possibility of an alternative reality, seeing a vision of that reshaped reality, and imagining a path toward your vision — may seem somewhat artificial. We are used to thinking about imagination as something that just happens. In some cases, these three steps happen practically at the same time, or in a split of a second. But exploring this process in slow-motion can teach us a lot about the nature of imagination and how to harness it to our creative flow. If nothing else, it can help us identify soft spots in applying the Imagine function. If you feel you are in a creative dead-end, is it because you find it hard to see an option for a different reality? Is it because you don’t see a vision of one such reshaped reality? Or are you experiencing difficulties in finding the first (or next) step toward realizing your vision? Reflecting on what is holding you back is a critical step in removing creative blocks.
The definition we used for the act of imagining — mental manipulation of reality — can create the impression that the Imagine function is used only for grand visions that literally change the world. In practice, imagination can be applied to any challenge and opportunity, including the smallest or most personal ones. From solving a problem in your project to inventing a whole new product category — you have to see a manipulated version of reality in your mind before you can go and implement it.
Let’s say you are looking for your next job. Is this a creative challenge that calls for imagination? It certainly seems to have a different nature than creating artwork or inventing a new product. But it really depends on how you perceive this task and how you approach it. If you are looking for a job similar to your previous one, in the same setup, you might argue this is not a creative task. Your mental image of your next role is almost identical to the memory of your previous one, and therefore, it is not imaginative. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s consider a different approach. Can you imagine another option — a reality in which you are doing something different (even before going into the details)? Next, can you portrait a vision of that role? Can you imagine a day in your life in this different reality? Once you do that, and you are happy with your vision, can you imagine the next couple of steps that will lead you in that direction?
If you are looking for your next job and you managed to do all of the above, you just had a creative vision. It might not change the world, but it can change your world. In the same manner, any challenge you are facing can potentially be addressed in the space of creative solutions. To explore that space, we must put the Imagine function into action.
In his highly acclaimed book The 7 Habit of Highly Effective People, Stephan Covey defines a set of interconnected habits that together increase personal and organizational effectiveness. It starts with two habits, which are practically done all in our head: Be Proactive and Start with the End in Mind. The first asks us to realize there’s always another alternative. Taking one path or the other is ultimately our choice. The second habit calls for portraying a vision — seeing it vividly in our mind — so that the things we do and the choices we make will help us realize that vision.
Covey’s model had a significant impact on me. The 7 Habits was the first book of its kind that I didn’t only read but also tried to apply. And although Covey didn’t list Imagine as one of the seven habits, when I practiced the model and wanted to apply it in my life, I realized just how pivotal imagination is to all seven habits6. Being proactive is accepting the option that there is a different reality or a different interpretation of reality. Starting with the end in mind is seeing a mental image of a reshaped reality. Accepting the option for a Win-Win solution, being empathic, understanding the people we interact with, and finding a synergized way to do things — a way that didn’t exist before — none of these is possible without an active, even provocative, imagination.
We began this journey with the idea that Creativity is relevant to everything we do, professional or personal, small or grand. This is also true for the function responsible for generating creative ideas: the Imagine function. Imagination is not just a tool for creating great artwork or inventing things that change the world. Imagination is the core of human thought, and as such, it can affect, and it does affect, everything we do.
The Next Step: Plan to Imagine
To master the Imagine function, please refer to the Core Practices defined in the c.os model. The following activities are an excellent place to start, though. They are designed so you could experiment with Imagine in lab conditions. To lead a creative life, your next challenge would be to implement all the Core Practices, turn them into habits, and seamlessly apply them in everything you do.
While we naturally associate it with Creativity, imagination is still often perceived as something only children and artists use or capable of. We saw earlier that when it comes to innovation, business, and leadership, most people just don’t see how imagination is applicable and how it can be a game-changer. And that may be the reason why so many of us just repress what we imagine, or worse, the fact we have active imagination at all.
As we saw in previous chapters, although the Creativity Operating System is programmed in our brain from the day we are born, most of us use these functions less as we become adults, unless we reignite them proactively. But maybe the most tragic decay is in the usage, or acceptance, of the Imagine function. When we treat imagination as something that belongs only to children and artists, we close the door for any chance to change our reality. When we don’t allow ourselves to imagine, we lose any opportunity for advancement and improvement. We will forever continue doing what we are doing today, and the results will either be the same or be less effective with time.
Imagination is the only way to move forward. Only when we can see a different reality in our mind, even if the delta is modest, we can start defining and achieving our goals. We have to allow ourselves to imagine — we have to accept imagination as an inherent part of any thinking process. Then, we have to deliberately practice it until it becomes a seamless part of the way we think and operate. And finally, we should use our revamped ability to imagine so we can reshape reality.
Allow Yourself to Imagine
Before we actively practice imagination, we need to accept imagining as a valid activity — as an essential activity. We use the Imagine function many times during the day whether we are aware of it or not — and most of the time, we are not. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to plan anything. But, this lack of awareness is one of the contributors to the false perception many people have when it comes to being imaginative.
We don’t really have to allow ourselves to imagine — we imagine either way — but instead, we should be aware of the times we imagine, and as a result, acknowledge the vital role this function has in practically everything we do. All we have to do is to shortly document everything we imagine during the day — whenever we see in our mind something that is not physically in front of us. It doesn’t have to be a surreal view of a fantasy world. Even trying to understand what another person feels or thinks following some event requires an active imagination.
Once you’ve done that for a few days, go back to your notes and reflect on what you imagined. Celebrate it and acknowledge the fact that your brain imagines all the time. Now, we just need to strengthen this function and then direct it to form a creative vision of another reality.
- Write down a short description of everything you imagine during the day.
- Do so for a few days, and then, reflect on your notes and what they say about your imaginative skills.
Apart from acknowledging the impact imagination has on everything we do, writing down what we imagine throughout the day enables us to reflect on the things we imagine. A lot of what we imagine quickly dissolve as we are rushing onto the next task. It is easy to dismiss, and therefore miss, some great things created in our mind, just because they are “merely a thought” as opposed to the infinite stream of stimuli we are bombarded with. But if we write these thoughts down and take a few minutes at the end of the day to revisit them, we might realize some of them are worth pursuing or at least worth giving more thought.
Pause to Imagine
Once we realize we imagine practically all the time, even without being aware of it, let’s try to do it consciously and intentionally. We don’t need to invent a fantasy world to do that. We can use things we observe and experience throughout the day as triggers for practicing active imagination.
Consider, for example, a fiction book you are reading. No matter how much of it you already read, take five minutes to imagine how the story continues. Your goal is not to guess the rest of the plot, but rather to imagine it. And there is a huge difference between the two. You don’t have “to get it right” or be accurate. You shouldn’t analyze what you already read and try to reconstruct the author’s line of thought. Just use the input — what you previously read — to imagine the rest of the story, or at least the next scene. Make the story your own creation.
Such a simple exercise turns passive reading into an active, imaginative play, and you can do that multiple times while reading a book. Try doing the same when you watch a movie. Pause the movie and imagine the next scene. Again, don’t try to guess how it ends or what twists and surprises are around the corner. Instead, try to imagine your own script starting from that point.
You can play this game not just with artworks, but basically with any event about to happen. You can take five minutes in the morning to imagine your day. You can imagine how a meeting will go just before starting it. And you can imagine the experiences you will have in an upcoming trip before leaving the country. There are countless opportunities for practicing active imagination, and each of them will make your Imagine function stronger and more flexible.
- Use any opportunity during the day to pause and imagine what could happen next.
- When reading a book or watching a movie, pause and imagine the rest of the plot or the next scene.
- When exploring an artwork, imagine the story it tries to tell.
- While doing all of the above, don’t try to “get it right.” Let your imagination lead the way and own the story.
- Write down what you imagined in your Insight Journal.
Pausing to imagine intentionally multiple times during the day is not just an exercise — it can actually turn your day into a continuous imaginative play. It turns us from passive participants into active players. With time, we become more playful — even if the game happens just in our minds. This playful mindset is one of the secret ingredients that can boost our creativity. It is a powerup that takes whatever we do to a new level and has a remarkable impact on our productivity and Creativity.
Break the Boundaries of Reality
If Wonder is about challenging assumptions and questioning what we observe, Imagine often involves breaking these assumptions or ignoring them. To reshape reality, we have to go beyond what we see and sense. We have to mentally create something which isn’t there. Kids do this naturally because the boundaries that limit us are not yet known to them. Up to a certain age, seeing an elephant in the middle of the street is as probable to a child as seeing an ice-cream truck. With experience, our mental model of the world becomes more rigid, and the fences of reality are being formed. To practice the Imagine function, we need to jump over these fences and return to the uncharted territory we explored in our childhood.
At the same time, whatever we can create in our mind is built from ingredients we have previously collected. Our experiences affect what we can imagine. If you never saw an elephant in your life, it will be impossible for you to imagine one walking down the street. This is where adults have an advantage over children: we have seen and experienced more, so we have more raw material we can play with to create alternate realities. So, in fact, we are in a great position to imagine amazing things. We just need to practice the ability to take a leap beyond the boundaries of reality7.
As it happens, this is not at all a difficult thing to do. We just need something to trigger our imagination. One of my favorite exercises you can play with anywhere and at any time is called Imaginarium.
Let’s try it. No matter where you are now, take a minute or two to look around you. Don’t look for anything specific — just scan what you see around. Now, let’s add a surprising trigger to help us break the boundaries of reality. Think of the word Swirl. Ready to take the jump? Imagine the combination of whatever you see around you with Swirl. Remember, this is not an exercise aimed to practice observation, so don’t look for things that remind you of Swirl. Instead, try to apply in your mind this new element to the reality you see in front of you. Try to see it vividly as if you are part of that reshaped reality. Spend a couple of minutes in that new reality. Finally, take some time to capture an Insight — a short story, a poem, a sketch, or anything that comes to your mind — inspired by what you have just imagined.
If you found this exercise challenging, that’s perfectly normal. Practice it with different triggers two or three times a day8, and in a couple of days, your mind will start adapting to seeing manipulated versions of reality on top of the real one. Once this ability becomes natural, keep doing it and make sure to keep surprising yourself.
- Play Imaginarium every day: use every opportunity to activate your imagination and add an imaginary layer on top of reality.
- Use what you imagine to create Insights of different form and types.
Enhancing the ability to break the boundaries of reality is building the infrastructure that will help us do the same when facing real challenges and opportunities. We aim to make our minds more flexible by not using only what we see and sense, and instead reshape reality and spice it up with our imagination. As a side effect, when playing Imaginarium, we are also actively generating creative outputs — we are interacting with our imagination and realizing the things we envision, and that is an experience by itself.
Define a Vision
When people, and even more so organizations, talk about having a vision, they often mean a well-phrased textual statement describing the goal that leads them. When crafted with honesty and when stripped of marketing wrapping, a lighthouse that guides the way is essential to anyone aiming to achieve anything. It motivates us and often helps us make decisions that may affect our long-term operation. A singular, long-term vision is clearly a product of imagination. If we see this vision vividly, we can reshape reality in our minds, and this is the first step toward creating a real change.
Not many people and organizations understand the importance of having a vision, and even fewer think of it as an act of imagination. It is easy to find examples of vision statements that sound more like marketing statements and taglines — statements nobody can translate into a vivid picture to guide their way. If you can’t imagine how reality looks like when your vision is realized, chances are you will not be able to create it. A vision, as the origin of the word suggests, depends on your ability to visualize it.
But the most common misconception regarding having a vision is associating the concept of a vision only with grand, long-term goals. This is why many people and organizations who do have a vision, have only one vision, and it is rarely updated.
We should harness the power of imagination to create a vision for practically anything we do. It is quite obvious when you consider the definition of the word vision:
a mental image of what the future will or could be like.
A vision is an image of the manipulated reality we aim to create. This future variation of reality can be one week away or a decade away. Having a long-term vision is a life-changing practice, but this does not mean we can’t have a vision for how the next week will look like or what will be the outcome of our one-month project. Such shorter-term visions shouldn’t be confused with plans or designs. A plan or a design is something to follow and manage. A vision is a mental image of the result. It shouldn’t necessarily be accurate, but it should help us find the path toward that reality.
So, what does having a vision for the next week, month, or year has to do with Creativity? Practically everything, if you just let your imagination take the lead. Creativity can affect any activity we are engaged in. For that to happen, we need to have a vision of that activity first — a mental image of what it could be or what it could result in.
Here’s a simple, everyday example, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Preparing dinner for your kids could be a real challenge. Scratch that. Convincing your kids to eat something you can prepare from the ingredients available in your kitchen and can also be considered healthy can quickly turn into mission impossible. At a minimum, it could turn into a struggle. So, one evening I had a vision. I imagined a playful dinner instead of this endless argument. I imagined my kids happy with what they have on their plates. How? Well, I imagined them enjoying what they see on their plates, regardless of what it is made of. And this is how the magical omelet concept was invented. It is nothing more than turning an omelet and some vegetables into a colorful collage, preferably of something my kids can connect to. Don’t think it was a great work of art, but it was a great success. Luckily, what I managed to create was similar enough to what I said I would make, and surprisingly, no matter what ingredients I used, it was happily eaten in no time.
My magical omelets were not a world-changing invention. They might not even be that original. When I envisioned them, I didn’t aim for a long-term goal. These playful omelets will not guide my life’s decisions and actions. And it took me less than one hour to translate this mental image into action and deliver the result. And yet, it was a creative vision. I saw these omelets in my mind when they were still not part of my reality. It was a pure mental image, even if the distance between it and reality was very short.
If nothing else, this was a fun, creative exercise. However, I see it as much more than that. I applied imagination and Creativity to a real challenge I was facing (small and personal as it was), and I created something that wasn’t there before — at least not in my world. Imagine how such small or short-term visions can transform the way you do things, from managing a project to planning your day, from spending the weekend with your family to the way you communicate with your team and colleagues at work. Creativity and imagination can upgrade or completely transform anything you do. It can be applied to everything you do.
- Define a long-term vision. See it in details, and write it down, even if you still don’t know how to achieve it.
- Envision the first interim goals toward fulfilling your vision. It’s not a plan, but a series of smaller visions which are more achievable in a shorter time.
- Every weekend, pick one activity planned for the week ahead, and envision a different, better result. See it in detail, even if you don’t know how to achieve it yet. Write your vision down.
- Think how you can achieve, or at least promote, the reshaped reality you envision.
- Implement your plan — do things differently to realize your short-term vision.
With so much hype about the importance of having a vision, it is easy to forget that basically envisioning is an act of imagination. Without a clear picture of an alternate reality, there is no creation, and to form that picture, you have to manipulate reality in your mind — you have to imagine. It doesn’t matter if you start with baby-step visions for the short-term or with a grand master-vision that will guide you for years. Eventually, both are critical components in leading a creative life. You have to envision a different reality to do things differently, and you have to do things differently to achieve different, better results. The alternative is to keep doing more of the same.
The Next Level of Creativity
The Creativity Operating System is not linear. A lot is going in our minds at any given moment, across multiple functions. Sometimes we experience, observe, wonder, imagine, and fuse almost instantaneously. On other occasions, we might spend years shaping an idea, maybe without even being aware of the process. We might never understand what exactly makes us fuse ingredients after they have been stored in our mind-pantry for years and, at a specific moment, imagine something the world has never seen before.
Now that we have discussed the first five functions in the Creativity Operating System, we understand better the setup that enables the creative magic to happen in our minds. Utilizing the five creative muscles, making them stronger and more flexible, is what enabled every act of Creativity in history. But highly creative people do even better than that. They are using two powerups that enables even better utilization of their Creativity Operating System. As it happens, the first powerup will also help us understand what happens to our Creativity as we grow up and how to restore it.
1 Robert S. Woodworth, A Study of Mental Life ⤴
3 Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, p67 ⤴
4 Creativity does not depend on successfully realizing an idea. In fact, failure and learning from it play an important role in our creative growth. However, failing to make even the first step to turn a mental creation to reality just leaves the idea as a fantasy. ⤴
5 Motivation and Passion are essential to Creativity, but we won’t discuss them in the scope of this book. These two functions are not unique to the Creativity Operating System. They are playing a significant role in practically anything we aim to achieve, creative or not. ⤴
6 In fact, imagination is mentioned numerous times throughout the book in the context of other habits. ⤴
7 Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, Imagination and Creativity in Childhood, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol 42, no. 1, p14 ⤴