Memories Fuel Imagination

Our imagination is fed by our memory.

Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it. Our imagination pulls us toward a new future, but it’s anchored in our past.

It’s very hard for us to imagine something of which we have never seen any of the component parts. We can put them together in novel ways, but if we are working from a limited library of images in the first place, our ability to be creative is stifled.

Yesterday I read Temple Grandin’s most recent book (in preparation for this week’s Wiser by Choice, which is free, by the way, so I think you should come!). In it, she describes how she thinks in pictures rather than words. She appreciates getting older (she’s in her mid-70s), as her memory bank of pictures has grown with experience, and therefore she has greater access to communication than she had as an autistic young person. Verbal communicators’ vocabulary learning curve tends to flatten out with age, but for visual thinkers, the aging process only enriches their access to the images with which they interact with the world.

Photo of journal with the quote "Imagination is something you grow into, not out of."

There is privilege embedded in this idea — those with access to resources are more likely to be exposed to a wider range of experiences, and therefore both imagination and curiosity are not evenly distributed. But even in a context of limited resources, for travel for example, we can choose to make our world bigger in other ways. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Read more. I love libraries — when was the last time you visited one?
  2. Travel from your desktop. There are incredible museums and galleries whose collections are available online. Maybe you could visit one, then experiment with recipes from that country for dinner later this week? We no longer have to get on a plane to experience other cultures.
  3. Put down your phone. Or at least be aware that social media algorithms tend to reinforce what we already like or think rather than exposing us to new ideas and people. What if you went to or instead and challenged yourself to listen to someone whose thinking is likely radically different from yours?
  4. Expand your circle. Since we become like the people we hang out with, maybe you need to grow your network so that you’re more inspired by the company you keep? Sometimes we need a more diverse set of role models.
  5. Be a tourist in your town. Visit places you’ve never been that are walkable to you. Go into stores you’ve never entered. Walk a trail that’s new to you. Experience your neighbourhood through a visitor’s eyes.

This idea is also available to organizations. If your team or corporation has been doing the same old things in the same old ways, we shouldn’t be surprised if your innovation muscles are weak! How might you create a more diverse set of organizational memories to fuel your collective imagination?

My guiding word for this year is “expansive” and my job is to help people imagine their next chapter. One early step is stretching our ability to imagine at all. I love that one practical way to do that is to make memories, here and now.

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