The value of your imagination can go up as well as down.”  An analogy based on the small print found at the bottom of exciting stock market adverts that I often use to describe how I think of the human imagination. And whilst this comparison falls apart under too much scrutiny, it does convey an important bit of philosophical small print for those interested in liberating their creative selves: The stuff your imagination presents to you can be both delightful and troubling (and anything in between.)

I think of the human imagination as our capacity to perceive something that isn’t obviously* of our immediate here and now experience.  A thought, an image, a concept, a feeling or a sensation that, if we allow it the freedom to germinate, might equally unfurl into a great business idea, a piece of art or a disconcerting moment of worry.   And whilst I love the sentiment of the famous quote “Worry is a misuse of the imagination”** I would replace the word worry with manifestation as I believe a liberated human imagination can only thrive in a truly unconditional environment.  If not, the whole process becomes a bit like those doomed corporate attempts at nurturing employee creativity where the bold headlines proclaim “No idea is a bad idea” but the small print reads “Except that one!”

I’ve started to wonder whether the stuckness we experience in trying to realise a less creatively inhibited version of ourselves arises not simply from our inability to come up with ideas but from the conditionality we place on our imagination. Maybe deep-down we secretly know that increasing our capacity to come up with a wildly creative concept also increases our capacity to catastrophize and contemplate some very deep, existential imaginings.  Thoughts of the archetypal tortured creative genius come to mind and we conclude that our imagination isn’t to be fully trusted with our wellbeing.  This dilemma seems to result in a popular, but somewhat misguided trade-off where we value our perceived sanity over our potential creativity and clip the wings of our imagination for fear of where it might take us if it were truly free. (If you are interested in organisational creativity then multiply this dynamic by the amount of human beings in said organisation to get an idea of why this is so difficult!)

But for me it isn’t as black and white as this. I’ve come to believe that the only way to truly nurture an imagination is to be curious and welcoming of whatever it presents to us.  To allow it to be unconditionally free to wander, safe in the knowledge that we will treat the imaginings it brings back with the same degree of curiosity and wonder.  This subtly different philosophy brings a small but vitally important shift to how we might think of our own creative development. Instead of trying to control the direction of our imagination, we instead develop the ability to let it go, to set if free and to allow it to become whatever it becomes.  The important artful practice then becomes developing a variety of different ways of working with and responding to whatever our imagination brings into our awareness.***

The theory of this is of course far trickier than the reality.  There are certain imaginings I enjoy much more than others.   There are certain thoughts, ideas or concepts that I welcome with open arms versus others I would rather not have to experience.   However, I try my best to treat both extremes with equal respect from a belief that my imagination is simply doing its job and presenting something to me from outside of my awareness that it feels is worthy of my attention.

For in the deep pond,
where my great ideas frolic
demons also lurk.


*    I also believe that there is nothing new under the sun and that every imagining is stimulated by something in our present moment experience even if it is out of our conscious awareness.

**    I’ve seen this quote attributed variously to Dan Zandra, Walt Disney, Audrey Woodhall and Chris Hardwick and have been unable to verify who actually said it first.

***    I did a talk in 2020 called “The Art of Creative Resillience” where I shared in more details some of my own practices for working with the more unwelcome offerings my imagination presents me with. You can watch it HERE.

The artwork used in this blog is entitled “A window into the human condition” by @stevexoh.  It is made from a reclaimed window frame and discarded bits of wood.  You can view a photo of the piece HERE.