Everyone has an imagination, yet many of us don’t exercise it. Worse still, some of us even convince ourselves that an imagination is just not something we possess. Albert Read, Managing Director of Condé Nast, and William Gompertz, Artistic Director of the Barbican Centre, spoke of imagination as something that we all have, and as a muscular tool that can be developed.
The premise of Albert’s new book, The Imagination Muscle, centres on the idea that the imagination should be regarded like a muscle that can be strengthened and improved on, akin to how we already regard our physical and mental wellbeing. So how do we strengthen our imagination muscle? Here are seven considerations stemming from their enthralling discussion:
1. Do you give yourself permission to see things through your own lens?
Will suggests that imagination is linked to confidence in your own perspective. This is not necessarily to say that you should be confident that your perspective is correct, merely that you are giving yourself permission to bring your own worldview and experiences to the fore. If you then add yourself into what Albert describes as the ‘imaginative palette’ containing your external references too, innovation might be found there.
Will backs this up by relaying an anecdote about how influential British painter Bridget Riley infused her personal angst into a piece that developed into Kiss, one of her seminal op-art pieces.
2. When did you last commit to something you might not be great at?
In a day an age where our missteps, mistakes, and mishaps can go viral in a flash, are we still willing to push ourselves to try something new, knowing we’ll might not get it right first time (or indeed, ever)?
Albert argues that adopting the mindset of a beginner is one way to ignite creativity, even if inventiveness comes with the inherent risks of failure and humiliation. He shares his observations on a link between scientific excellence and curiosity about the arts, citing Nobel Prize-winning scientist Alexander Fleming as an example of an eminent scientist who indulged in painting despite being derided for an apparent lack of artistic finesse. Albert suggests that the courage and open-mindedness required to try something new strengthens your ability to push boundaries in your main pursuits.
3. Do you ask enough questions?
“If you look at the great creative breakthroughs, it’s because somebody somewhere has asked an incredible question,” Will opines, following an anecdote about how TV/film producer JJ Abrams approached the pressure of rebooting Star Trek simply by asking more questions. Will concludes that it’s always about curiosity, “The imagination muscle isn’t about knowing the answers; it’s about asking the right questions.”
4. Do you rush to fill nothingness, or do you embrace negative space?
What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? If the answer involves reaching for your phone, you might be inadvertently depriving yourself of one of the most fertile periods for your imagination. The moments between sleep and wake are where the boundaries of the unconscious and conscious merge – a moment of magic which could provide the platform for highly creative thought.
Instead, whether at the bus stop, or in a queue, or in the loo, we’ve become increasingly unable to do nothing. We reach for our phones at the expense of observing our surroundings, exploring our thoughts, or even expunging worries from our conscious mind. American artist Agnes Martin’s process often involved sitting for hours on end clearing her mind of thought before putting paint to canvass – she would only paint when something emerged within her from the nothingness she’d created. When life is at its quietest, that’s when things start to happen. Have you become desparate to avoid stillness?
5. Are you obsessed with originality instead of making an existing thing better?
Creativity doesn’t have to be original. You don’t have to come up with something entirely novel for something to be imaginative.
Geniuses like Gutenberg, Picasso, Shakespeare, and Lin Manual Miranda were great at either fusing existing ideas and styles together, or improving greatly on the execution of something that might already have existed.
6. Do you find yourself in a place of psychological safety?
As the managing director of Condé Nast, Albert knows only too well that the success of his business thrives on creativity and on people coming up with new and brilliant ideas. The question then arises of how we treat ideas in a corporate environment. Can leaders create physical and psychological environments that are conducive to ideation? Is your organisation or team culturally inclined to castigate ‘bad’ ideas, or positively build on them? Is failure permitted? Is creativity valued in a way that’s not solely tied to profit? Is play encouraged? Getting these environmental and cultural factors right can lead to a more imaginative workforce.
7. Have you considered that you might exist in a cultural prison?
Are tree trunks brown, or are they purple? When Will, on regarding a painting by David Hockney, suggested that his painting, whilst nice, wasn’t ‘real’, the artist challenged Will to look properly. In other words, are you using your own eyes to observe something, or are you seeing something through the cultural prison in which we are all (to varying degrees) held captive?
If the starting point is acknowledging that your imagination might be limited by your cultural prison, then making an effort to jump out of that prison is crucial to expanding your imagination. Look in unexpected corners, go off the beaten track, and embrace things that are out of your norm. In a way, it’s another aspect of Albert’s imaginative palette; bring your view point into something, but be open to seeing things as someone entirely different from you might see it too.