Imagination is Everything

I have a lot of magnets on my refrigerator. Most of them are from family vacations. A few predate the family vacation stage of my adult life–surviving a dorm room, several apartments and two houses. One of those is a quote illustrated by the graphic artist Mary Engelbreit.

One of my refrigerator’s most vintage magnets.

It reads: “To imagine is everything. To know is nothing at all.”

A faculty friend came to my house one time and was clearly offended by the sentiment. On the surface, she had a point. All educated people—and this friend has Ph.D. after her name afterall—certainly want knowledge to be everything. If it were, it would illuminate a clear path to success. Learn a bunch of stuff; achieve fame and fortune, right?

Would it help if I told you that the quote originated from Albert Einstein?

Clearly, knowledge is less powerful today than ever. Most of what you know is stagnant and based on the past. And knowledge can get in the way of being open to new ideas and reaching new heights, which was Einstein’s point I am sure.

Late last week I attended a workshop with the best workshop title I’ve ever heard: The Do it Yourself Lobotomy. Catchy, huh? I had a lot of work to do that day, but I just couldn’t miss out on it.

Tom Monahan presented the DIY Lobotomy. No, not the pizza guy; the creativity guru.

The lobotomy was all about learning techniques to separate your left brain from your right, and moreover to arrive at creative ideas by directing your brain to go in new directions. It was heady stuff, no pun intended.

He gave a simple and very useful definition for creativity.  If it surprises you, it’s creative. So, if you are trying to come up with something creative, knowledge is the devil.

New ideas are found in the unknown, not the known. The secret is not to know, so you begin to wonder. And break out of rigid thought patterns that lead you to predictable outcomes.

My favorite technique from the workshop was the “law of large numbers.” He demonstrated how forcing yourself to generate more and more ideas will use quantity to get to quality.

That doesn’t mean that bad ideas are good. It just means that you have to generate a lot of trash to get to the really good ideas. We tend to only let out ideas that we think might be good. But when you self-impose a ridiculous quantity requirement and add in some deadline pressure, the creativity-stealing censor inside you tends to shut down.

With dozens of teams working around the workshop room, it became obvious that the teams with the most ideas had some of the worst ones, but also all of the very best ones. Less wasn’t more. More was more!

All this, doesn’t mean knowledge is nothing. Because in the end, all new ideas are just old ideas put together in an unexpected way.

So when do you get your best ideas? Maybe the correct answer is: you never know!


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