While on vacation with my partner’s family, I played lego with my partner’s nephew, who is a huge fan and spends hours on end transfixed, while building marvelous structures out of his imagination, brick by brick. It was really fun. Lego was my favorite toy when I was a kid. I didn’t have many toys, but I had one Zoo set – the sort with pretty large bricks. I loved the set, and I gained imagination through building zoos in hundreds of different permutations. While playing with lego again, I thought about the importance of imagination and how I’ve slowly regained it over the years.
How We Lost Imagination
Being imaginative isn’t a prioritized trait, and especially not in Asian culture. It is more important to excel within drawn lines (like standardized tests, exams, the confines of the school community), and to fit in with whatever is the socially cool or prudent thing to do or pursue. We over-prioritize structure and precedent in our society and penalize people who don’t follow it. This is a largely a burden of history since the industrial era, but I do think this is evolving as technology changes our world and levels the playing field a little more for people who choose not to walk within the lines.
The Importance of Imagination
I am a grown adult with an exciting day job and serious responsibilities. I’m also a Taylor Swift super fan, because really, I learned the importance of imagination in the new digital age from her. A lot of people make good music and then stick within the drawn lines and traditions of the age-old industry. But she has re-imagined how to build relationships with her fans, how and where to market and play her music, and how to keep music and music videos classy. It’s really impressive. At merely 25 years old, with 74m Facebook followers, 52m Twitter followers and 21m Instagram followers, she is an incredible entrepreneur who keeps evolving, pivoting and innovating, and engaging people with the content she creates. It’s important to imagine what you want and then think of ways to bring it into reality. So much is possible today with technology.
I also think the reverse is true – that if you don’t have imagination, you will likely die a slow and painful death of relevance in today’s economy. You simply won’t keep up with the people who have imagination, and the tools that technology now provides to these people to bring imagination into reality.
Believing in Alternative Realities
Most people believe in alternative realities only when they see it play out before their eyes. It’s too easy to point out why things wouldn’t work, and where things could go wrong and fail. One of the reasons why I like being in the world of tech, venture financing and startups is because it is an abnormally concentrated group of people who have imagination and believe in alternative realities. I remember going to a TechCracker event last year and really psyched by what I saw there – food and leather’s lab-grown future (and the possible death of agricultural economies), virtual reality, mind-controlled connected devices, and goggles that replace smartphones and PCs. It was really incredible stuff. Maybe you think these and technologies like driverless cars and artificial intelligence are far away, but they are closer than you think.
Imagination is a muscle that atrophies when it isn’t used. There weren’t many tools that helped to build imagination once I stopped playing with my lego set. I was in a constant cycle of class, homework and exams for the next 12 years – and I was tremendously bored and increasingly uncreative. Then I got the chance to go to the US for college, where the system allowed experimentation and I learned completely random things ranging from archaelogy to South American guerrilla warfare to case precedents of the US First Amendment on freedom of speech and press. I went to classes with some of the smartest and most creative and diverse people I’d ever met. I didn’t do a lot of the practical classes for the career path I was aiming for out of college in finance. Although it ended up being a much more difficult path, it was creative, fun, challenging, and different.
Different Is Good
Different is good. Different stands out. Different should be celebrated! It always frustrates me when people put self-imposed mental gates on who they can or cannot be, and what they can or cannot do. “I spent the last ten years in X. I can’t do Y now…. I didn’t study A, so I can’t do B…” I’ve always believed that when you’re different, you can be creative and find ways to bring a ton of value to whatever you’re doing, in ways that others can’t. I also think that when you realize different is good, you will free yourself to imagine fully what you want to do and who you want to be.
Have you ever realized the importance of imagination? Do you celebrate people around you being different and thinking different? I’d love to hear from you!