Many exciting words start with I, like “innovate,” “information,” and “invention.” As an introvert who lives mostly in my own head, I thrive off of all of these abstract ideas. But there’s something magical about the idea that drives them all: “imagination.”
Whenever I think of that word, I remember the hilarious clip of Spongebob Squarepants spreading his hands to form a rainbow. Spongebob’s eternal optimism and determination to create something out of nothing always impresses me.
Like Spongebob, imagination seems to be a remnant of childhood. In the grown-up world, driven by cold, hard nuggets of data, there’s less room for broke English majors like Spongebob, who sit in cardboard boxes and tell stories.
But imagination is a way of thinking that can apply to the most ordinary objects around us. My dad created play-sets out of cardboard boxes for his kids and saved money on buying toys. Inventor extraordinaire Violet Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events can create live-saving devices out of any ordinary item. A well-honed imagination can literally save lives.
Anyone can develop the ability to see something that doesn’t exist and bring it to life in a clever new way. The explosive improvements in technology over the history of humankind resulted from the creativity of scientists, engineers, designers, and many kinds of resourceful people, not just elitists who sit in front of typewriters and MacBooks (looking at you, Ron Swanson). Disney invented “imagineering,” an amusing term to describe the creative process of engineering.
But technology aside, the most important application of imagination is empathy for other people. J.K. Rowling said it best in her 2008 Harvard commencement speech:
“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
We desperately need stories, in the various forms of fiction and nuanced journalism, to help us imagine how other people are feeling. While we can’t meet most of the people sharing our planet, writers can create glimpses into other people’s worlds. We use fictional characters like Harry Potter to understand that we are not the only ones dealing with love, death, and the eternal friend zone. And when our own mind is overtaken with negative thoughts, it’s soothing to temporarily escape into someone else’s world. Imagination magically keeps hope alive.
So it doesn’t hurt to practice imagination in our spare time. Build tools out of ordinary household items. Act out a scene as a villainous character. Write a story about someone else’s life. Sketch things in crayons. It seems as though the older we grow, the more we have to consciously retain color in our lives.
The most powerful questions we can ask of the people and things around us are “what if . . . ” and “why . . . ?” Answering those questions with a flexible, empathetic mind is the only way we can invent a future that inches closer to the ideal for everyone.
This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write an article for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.