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What the Smartest People Do to Stay Smart

Albert Einstein once said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” That quote often takes some people aback . . . especially if they’ve been trained to think of imagination as child’s play.

But Einstein went on to say, “Knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress and giving birth to evolution."

It was in this spirit, that the creators of the award-winning PBS series, Sesame Street, regularly inserted a feature where a young girl would wonder out loud, “I wonder what would happen, if I were to . . .” And then she would think of some action like stepping on the cat’s tail or bursting a balloon at the dinner table. The ripple effects she envisioned were often humorously catastrophic, but they taught kids to use their imagination and anticipate the potential ripple effect of their actions.

A great lesson and one that many adults simply never got as they progressed through school. It's a skill so seldom taught and yet this essential use of the imagination is a foundational element of our cognitive intelligence--one that’s vital in life and especially in leadership.

Now, there's a whole other way to explore that same question, “What if?” One that leads to innovative ideas and inventive solutions. We hinted at this in our last blog post where we uncharacteristically cited the lyrics to a Spice Girls’ song to begin the conversation about why so many people don’t know what they really want.

In that post, we promised a second step to help you get clear on what truly lights you up. So here it is.

And, yes, as you may have guessed, we’re talking about engaging our imaginations.

We've learned that in our fast-paced world, while imaginative work often seems frivolous, the most brilliant minds count on it as a way to solve problems and create products that previously were inconceivable. So, it's particularly when we really, really want the answer to a problem or dilemma that we love the question, “What if?

Just posing a query using those two simple words is a powerful way to engage your imagination.

When our clients are facing challenges, for example, or are unclear about what they want, we coach them in various processes to help them fire up their imagination. One method that many of people really enjoy, challenges them to think like a detective. The process invites them to be curious, to look for unexpected clues, and stay open-minded about every possibility.

It’s no surprise that so many people enjoy this process because audiences worldwide seem to love stories, where some smart sleuth figures out “who done it” while everyone else misses the clues he or she uses to solve the case.

If you'd like to play the role of the smart detective in your life, here’s a little secret about how the brain works. You see, once you are willing to really ask the question and engage your imaginative circuitry, your unconscious mind becomes like a bloodhound, hot on the trail, looking for the answers to the problem you need to solve or the dilemma you want to resolve.

There’s a great comment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: "Alice laughed: "There's no use trying." she said; "One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

“There’s no use trying.” Is that a familiar voice? How often are we faced with a challenge and feel immediately discouraged. We may have failed at using our imagination before. We may be intimidated by our current obstacles or we may simply be feeling low. Whatever the reasons, all of us have experienced giving up before we even get started. Perhaps it seems less risky to fail early so that we have less to grieve.

But here’s an interesting question: When is the best time to practice a new skill?

Obviously, before you need it. Especially if the new skill is unfamiliar. So, why not start revving up your imagination now--in advance--by practicing what we call the “Imaginal Workout?” It’s easy, simple, fun, and takes no time at all. In fact, you could consider this simply a new wrinkle on day dreaming.

Here’s how it works.

When you have a spare moment, for instance, waiting for the light to change, on hold with a support person, waiting for software to load up a big file, simply ask the question “What if?” You can create a focus first, for instance, by thinking about some upcoming task or appointment. Or, you can just ask “What if” and see what shows up next.

Here are a few examples:

“What if we had a real breakthrough in the sales meeting this afternoon?” Now, do any clues show up? What thoughts bubble to the surface of your mind as you contemplate this upcoming event? Or, what if I were able to resolve that issue with my colleague?

You might just say “What if” without any prior target. In that case, who knows what ideas might pop up? You could start dreaming about a vacation in Maui. “What if my spouse and I could jump on a plane tonight and have breakfast in Hana tomorrow?” Quite a thought. And, bizarre as that idea might seem, it could lead you somewhere . . . just follow the clues. Maybe it’s just a flight of fancy. Or, maybe your subconscious is telling you that it’s time for a break or that your health or your relationship needs attention.

Remember the idea here is to get your imagination in prime working order. So loosen up and have fun by posing a question regarding an impossible idea. “What if I could fly?” (A question, by the way, that led the Wright Brothers and others to transform our world in the 20th Century). The moment that thought appears, a variety of sensations will occur. You might find yourself scoffing at the idea, which puts you in touch with your inner critic. That could alert you to how often it’s condemning you for being imaginative. Or, you might love the idea of flying and dream on, imagining what it would be like to soar in the heavens. That might connect you the feeling of freedom you could incorporate into a work process.

Ultimately, improving your imagination will increase your overall IQ and abilities of perception, because it will make you more facile and imaginative, especially in challenging situations. Under pressure, most of us resort to tried and true solutions but, when those don’t work, we need to get innovative. When you’ve tuned up your imagination, it’s easier to get innovative on-demand so you can get a jump on solving a problem that has resisted traditional solutions.

So, "what if" you decided to tune up your imagination today?”

Here's your Thriving Challenge for the week:

Begin to develop the habit of asking “What if?”

Enjoy daydreaming, either with a target or not. See what outrageous thoughts you can come up with and enjoy the process of developing your imaginal muscles.

Nothing productive needs to come of this, it’s just a fun, new hobby that someday just might come in handy..

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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