Who Killed Imagination

April 3, 2016

There are only two skills that are guaranteed to be in demand over the next fifty years: innovative problem solving and the advocacy of such innovations. A key attribute of future career success is therefore imaginative power. For many adults, imagination seems an impossible job requirement. Yet almost all children have imagination in abundance. But while once it was there, later it is gone. So who killed the imagination of children?

There are many culprits. There are the parents who tell children to stop daydreaming; but children do need to stop being imaginative about their personal hygiene or bedtimes. There are the teachers who insist on established norms; but children should not be imaginative when they are spelling or counting. There are the coaches who insist on a precise play or yoga position. There is the need to stop children from disobeying the rules of the road, or other safety requirements. There is the grandparent who tells the teenager to grow up; but teenagers do need to learn maturity. There is the career counselor who tells a young person to be realistic. And indeed, the young do need to stop fantasizing about becoming astronauts or rock stars. But none of these logically required constraints require the death of imagination: merely that it be channeled to where it belongs and away from where it does not. But the result is nevertheless the death of imagination. So there are more villains to be identified.

There is a parent who prizes the manageability of the well behaved child who stays within well-defined norms. There is the adult who lets youth devour entertainment so packaged that nothing is left to the imagination, even as the adult does likewise.

There is the teacher or coach who finds a disciplined classroom or team both convenient and stress-free. There is the manager who values predictability and consistency. There is the tax collector and bureaucrat whose primary job is to enforce rules, whether sensible or not. Those who profit from the status quo disparage those whose imaginations set off too many questions. There are those who are too lazy to engage a creative vision, so much easier to watch a movie. There are these and more who together create a popular culture that actively resists change, the inevitable companion of imagination.

What begins as a reasonable effort to help a child master the world turns into a full-scale assault on imagination in every form, until for most people imagination is pushed into the farthest recesses of the mind, there to atrophy. And so we have today’s world, where even an urgent need for innovation is met with the tweak of existing practice, no more than the pretense of a new idea. Ask students an open-ended question, and watch them panic. Governments extol the economic benefits of innovation and offer no new ideas to encourage it. Even technology companies and explicitly creative enterprises either iterate yet again a previous idea, or admit defeat and buy innovation from outside suppliers. Movies recycle old scripts endlessly. New products are innovative because they are thinner. Video games break new ground by being louder and faster. And so it goes. Even as the need for innovation grows more critical, and in spite of the potential of great advantage, true innovation remains scarce. Those who can regain their lost imagination will benefit greatly.
How do you reignite your imagination? The answer is simple: practice. Since many people will practice their tennis game or the intricate details of Asian cookery, applying the same technique to imagination is much less common. So start now and regress to the best part of your childhood.

Cook something different, much different. Take a new route home. Read something different. Learn something radically new. Watch a movie and in your mind re-write the ending. Compose the lyrics to a song as you careen down the highway. Doodle creatively on your performance appraisal. Do something seriously different with your friend or partner. The process will be painful at first. Gears in your mind rusty with disuse will grind, often to a halt. So you just push through harder. Enjoy the occasional flicker of an imaginative impulse, and redouble your practice.

Slowly and then more surely, the glory of your childhood can return. With the imagination of the child and the battle scars of the adult, you are ready for true adventure.