One of the most powerful aspects of being a cognitive animal is our imagination.
Da Vinci, Gaudi, Gorman, Christie, Edison, Mandela, Gandhi, the Bronte Sisters the list of those who have changed the world and shifted our perceptions through their imagination. Sure their actions were impactful and yet it started with their imagination. They imagined better, clearer, more compelling things through their work: Be that writing, inventions, designs, and political activism.
Now imagine your biggest dream, hope or aspiration.
Not the sort of dream that is a material gain (like a flash car, a beach-house, unbridled choice of lifestyle) but of impact on other human beings, the world’s other forms of life, the planet’s eco-system, lasting intellectual markers for a better world.
I sense there are a lot of people whose imagination ends up being vested in things like; the elimination of poverty, cessation of war, enhanced education and life opportunities, creating a business that changes people’s lives for the better. Even medical and technological breakthroughs.
And I suspect there are lots of people devoid of any dreams of this kind: Who harbour desires to be the toughest, break the system, acquire material wealth and possessions, outdo their neighbours, just exist comfortably or even scrape by. I’m casting no judgement, merely showing the spectrum of where our imagination as human beings may reside.
Near gain or far reach.
Is imagining the resolution to some of the world’s biggest problems the domain of privilege? If you find yourself in hardship, is that all that matters and any imagination of being part of something bigger, bolder and more beneficial is unreachable, trivialised and unimportant to you? After all, you and your family around you are all that matters surely?
Yes and no. For I believe our imagination is innate. Untaught but enhanced through life experiences. experiments, craft and curiosity.
A rather simplistic take on imagination goes like this:
Stage 1 imagination — as a child. Unprocessed imagination — a wonderment of all things as you start to comprehend how things are, work and how you are with the world. A thirst for understanding and imagination to make sense and appreciate the world.
Stage 2 imagination — as an adolescent. A comprehension based on the world around you, the forming of choice, preference and desires in life; and then steered towards the journey you believe is your pathway into adulthood.
Stage 3 imagination — as an adult. Getting by, doing well, achieving, acquiring, experiencing.
Stage 4 imagination — there has to be something better than this?
In Stage 1 and 2, as a maturing person, you may start to realise, appreciate and be driven by a form of craft: Be that, sport, art, intellect whatever. It’s where dreams of being an F1 driver as Sir Lewis Hamilton had; a poet as Amanda Gorman has become; an activist as Greta Thunberg has become.
Stage 3 and 4 are a little different. Entrapped by the world’s socio-economic systems, you will either be advantaged or disadvantaged by your place of residence, your ethnicity, and/or your education. Imagination often then leads to a range of materially linked aspirations, goals and achievements.
Yet in Stage 3 and 4 we also have the most to offer to our Stage 1 and 2 imagination. What were we dreaming about as a child and an adolescent? And have acquired insight on as an adult that can be somehow smashed together in a reevaluated, tested, reshaped and unleashed form?
My Stage 2 imagination had me working with animals. Animals fascinated and appealed to me. I thought about being a Vet but realised the study pathway (I doubted I was academic enough) and euthanasia element to the role, somewhat put me off. Yet I’ve continued to imagine a world where animals are not fur-farmed, factory-farmed and mistreated. I deplore trophy hunts, fox hunts and any hunts. So I’ve chosen a path of veganism, and donate to animal welfare charities and lobby groups.
My Stage 3 imagination had me wanting to advance my learning through my work. I wasn’t so bothered about promotion (sure I played the game as this advanced my learning). This was also recently my Stage 1 imagination recast as an adult. I loved learning new things, reading and just acquiring knowledge. More money was nice but when it impacted my learning, I had one or two episodes of high-stress lows in my life.
My Stage 4 imagination goes way beyond my capability and capacity but I nurture it, regardless.
It’s imagining everyone having chances no matter the circumstances of their birth. Of an education system that reflects the needs of the world, not the needs of the already economically wealthy.
Of a healthcare system that is world-class, the world over and continues to expand the ways we can overcome disease and debilitating conditions nature often deploys randomly to people across the world.
It’s imagining a world where work is fulfilling for pretty much everyone on the planet. An economic system that is steered towards care of the planet, those animals in my Stage 2 imagination, those communities irrespective of location, wealth or other characteristics.
Work is, to me, the vehicle by which we can achieve those Stage 4 imaginations of mine and more. Much more.
Yet work has continued to be toil most unfulfilling. In service of the already wealthy, a pastiche of serving others, a political hot potato and demonised by many as the reason many of us are sad, lonely or ill.
Yes, some people work “too much”. A recent WHO report stated over 745,000 people whose deaths were attributed to working long hours is utterly sad and shows the danger in overly-intense pressurised working environments we have created.
A lot of work is in the “wrong” places — making the wealthy more wealthy, fixations on pretty useless material possessions and as Dave Graeber pointed out Bullshit Jobs.
Imagine if work was in all the right places.
That societal balance. That equality of opportunity. That elimination of bias, bigotry, hatred and war. That educational shift to a more impactful schooling system. That economic system respecting and repairing the planet and no longer plundering and pillaging it continually. That farming and animal welfare system that respects their sentience and right to a comfortable life.
Our imagination is our most powerful source and force for good in the world. And yet to many, we’re trapped in unimaginative places where the last thing we need is that distraction. We channel our imagination into innovation that results in more extraction, more division and impulsive greed, power and forms of oppression.
I have to come to believe that my imagination will always outstrip my capacity and capability and I’m comforted if not even more driven by that. Yet without any sense of privilege, virtue-signalling or otherwise, I rarely see enough imagination in politicians, business leaders, and those with the real chances to make the world a different, better place.
Do we need more handbags, glad rags, and lifestyle mags? Or should we seriously start to deconsumerise, dematerialise and reimagine ourselves with fewer possessions and greater obsessions about fixing society, commerce and the world?
Maybe my Stage 4 imagination is an age thing, yet I can’t get over how much it’s circled back into my Stage 1 and 2 even 3 imagination.
Can we begin to value imagination and talk more about what we really want the world to be, and our part in making it so?
Imagine that. Impactful imagination. Success by imagination, not gifted by privilege.
I’ll be continually imagining better business, for a better world. Where people flourish. Where life is flourishing.
And that’s not where I imagined I’d be, but know it’s my imagination running wild.
Imagination is where our dreams come alive.
As Dr King Junior said, “I have a dream”.
With your imagination unchecked, what’s your dream?