Half a century before his time, Robert Goddard took a quantum leap in scientific speculation. His 1920 scientific paper proposed that rockets could propel themselves through space even without an atmosphere to push against.
His idea defied the conventional understanding of cause and effect, resulting in a mocking New York Times editorial that concluded: “Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” Maybe the Times was right.
Due to a sickly childhood, Goddard missed long stretches of formal schooling. But perhaps he did something better – he read at home about his favorite subjects, physics and invention, and he imagined.
Although most adults believe they lack imagination, ironically, each adult has experienced an imaginative childhood. Albert Einstein insisted: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The genius of his imagination is foundational to modern physics. Likewise, Goddard’s theories propelled Neil Armstrong to the moon on July 20, 1969. If you haven’t had an original thought since childhood, I have good news for you – you can rebuild your imagination!
1. Think in Bricktures
The old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Our imagination is the image of our thoughts; therefore to imagine once is to think a thousand thoughts. If you find yourself often thinking in terms of to-do lists, methods and statistics, you may be short-circuiting your imagination. Einstein possessed the ability to build mental pictures of even abstract concepts. “I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”
Thinking in “bricktures” gives body to our thoughts. Visualization illustrates the data in our minds while craftsmanship forms our ideas in a tangible way. Begin with simple mental images then go a step further by sketching them or building them out of plastic bricks. Imagination thrives on images whether they are simple or elaborate. Instead of bypassing your senses, begin thinking in “bricktures”!
2. Make Connections
I had to laugh when my almost 3-year-old son came walking over to me in his little sister’s walker. “This is my excavator!” he proclaimed while manipulating the attached rattles and noisemakers like bucket controls. To me the walker was a device to assist his baby sister with walking, but to a boy using his imagination it was much more. My son mentally connected the rolling, swiveling frame with an earth mover on tracks.
Revered as one of the most imaginative innovators of the information age, Steve Jobs believed that “creativity is just connecting things.” He made a fortune linking the utility of computing with the passions of people. From the personal computer to the iPhone, Jobs wowed the world by uniting the best of engineering and design.
Those who build diverse experiences into their lives often grow their creativity by linking seemingly unrelated concepts. Changing majors in college or working a variety of jobs may not be good for career advancement, but making useful connections between dissimilar occupations can be a rewarding play place for the imagination.
The creative combinations surrounding us await discovery. Math professor Søren Eilers demonstrated the abundance of possibilities by calculating the number of ways six, eight-stud LEGO bricks can be connected. The creativity of connecting things can generate endless possibilities. By the way, those six bricks have a lot of possibilities too – 915,103,765 to be exact!
3. Think Like a Kid
Just walk a child through a nursing home to prove to yourself that children are vested with powers we lose – yet crave – as adults. Children have energy and imagination that few adults experience. Yet think of the adults that do possess these qualities. The fact is that imagination, when paired with maturity and learning, can lead to seeming genius. Filled with wonder, children ask questions; adults merely answer them. When children face impossibility, they pretend the possible. Adults are too often satisfied to say something cannot be done.
What if adults began asking more questions instead of insisting they have the answers? Childlike curiosity is an endless source of creative ideas. While playing with a child may seem like a waste of time to a busy adult, interacting with children or remembering our own childhoods can unlock a playfulness that flourishes best in a child’s imagination.
4. Tell a Story
An old farmer had a field overrun with groundhogs. In order to save his bean crop, the gentleman had no choice but to shoot the varmints that were destroying his livelihood. Each evening after his hunt, the farmer would etch a couple of tally marks into a piece of wood. Meanwhile, the farmer’s grandson ran around outside with a stick in hand and a coon skin cap on his head. When the child excitedly asked his grandpa what the marks represented, the farmer proudly told him, “These marks show that I have killed near 50 of those pesky varmints!” The confident grandchild replied, “That’s nothin’! I just killed a giant grizzly that ate 50 groundhogs for supper!” Without a gun, the child had lived the hunt while the farmer had experienced little more than a counting exercise.
Imagination transcends statistics. Instead of summarizing your day with a boring fact report, try sharing one or two memorable stories with someone. Every day your actions write the story of your life. Why not get the satisfaction of sharing that story with someone else?
5. Find Your Idea Place
Imagination thrives in the right environment. When I turned twelve years old, my dad gave my brother and me the assignment of push mowing around 300 evergreen trees and the ditches in front of our home. I never looked forward to that hot, miserable job, but behind the handle of that mower became my idea place. Today I’ve moved up in the world – my hands are on the steering wheel of a lawn tractor, one of my best idea places.
Powered into adulthood by a vivid imagination, Robert Goddard invented the liquid-fueled and multi-stage rockets which would serve as the foundation for the NASA Space Shuttle. What kept Goddard from leaving his imagination behind as he transitioned into adulthood? Seventeen-year-old Goddard climbed into his most memorable idea place with a saw and a hatchet. Cutting the dead branches out of his Aunt Effie’s cherry tree, Goddard had an experience that would change his life. “I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars. I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended for existence at last seemed very purposive.”
Original thinkers visualize, make connections, ask questions, tell stories and find places to generate ideas. These brilliant minds include not only artists and philosophers, but also the world’s inventors. These tinkerers transform imagination into reality. Before Edison, there was darkness. Before the Wright Brothers, people kept their feet on the ground. Before Robert Goddard, outer space was little more than an image in a telescope. Today, astronauts live out Goddard’s dream. Each person possesses the power of imagination. What will your ideas make possible?