Your Imagination Matters More Than You Know

If creativity is imagination in action, then there is no creativity without imagination. To determine which ideas have value, you first must proliferate diverse ideas. This is why most tests of creativity measure divergent thinking: the generation of many possible solutions as opposed to convergent thinking: the determination of the best possible solution. For example, the classic question “How many ways can you use a paperclip?” Hint: you determine what makes a paperclip. Once you ask the question “Does it have to be a paperclip as we know it?” then your imagination has room to expand in multiple directions (1). You can explore how the size, shape, scale, material, or number of paperclips create different combinations of possibility. Suddenly you go from the typical 10-15 ideas to over 200 with the simple use of the question “What if?”

The capacity to ask “What if?” is uniquely human.Creativity is a new combination of thought that is determined to have value, use, or meaning.

Our brain’s massive neural pathways allow us to not just act instinctively but to question, to speculate (2). We can imagine a possible future without having to act it out, allowing us to prepare for alternative realities on a daily basis. I do this every time I leave my house with multiple jackets, planning for the Bay Area’s microclimates. This speculative capacity is so common place that we often don’t recognize its power. We get so used to moving quickly from divergent to convergent thinking that we forget how many options there are. In the rush of life, we rarely allow space for considering the wide range of opportunities available to us. Thus, our future feels limited when our imagination is confined. 

This is why hope is a practice of imagination. As neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt explain: “Hope is a form of creative speculation: we imagine the world as we wish it to be rather than as it is.” (3) And the reverse is true: the world is as we imagine it to be. You see this in the technological advances that made real the imagination of science fiction (4). In fact, in response to a lack of positive or utopian science fiction, The Science Fiction Advisory Council was formed to help us imagine better futures (5). Because when all you see are dystopias, you can’t imagine otherwise. 

When I say your imagination matters more than you know, I mean our future depends on it. I once asked my students: Why is the goal of creative leadership in social change to imagine otherwise? Because if we want a more just future, we have to believe in alternatives to the present. This is why I continually return to the words of activist and writer adrienne maree brown:

“At this point, we have all the information we need to create a change; it isn’t a matter of facts. It’s a matter of longing, having the will to imagine and implement something else. We are living in the ancestral imagination of others, with their longing for safety and abundance, a longing that didn’t include us, or included us as enemy, fright, other.”

(6) adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

She is calling for an imagination revolution; one that generates answers to the question: “What are the ideas that liberate all of us?” (7) I recently witnessed one such answer through a beautiful animation of a future with The Green New Deal (8). The video brought tears of joy as I saw a future unfold where humanity thrived in the face of climate change. I hadn’t realized how limited my imagination of the future was until I was given this possible vision. The video states “We [need to] entertain solutions on the scale of the crisis we face” and that “We can only be whatever we have the courage to see.” I for one am going to take this call to action and cultivate my imagination to be radical. 

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne

Everyday Creativity Tip

Another adrienne maree brown quote I use as a mantra is “What we pay attention to grows”; in other words, your focus shapes your reality. So if you want to cultivate your imagination, seek out inspiration; don’t just wait for it to come to you. In our 24 hour news cycle, it is far more likely for you to be exposed to inspiration-killers. You have to remind yourself of what’s possible. Seek out sources that fill your daily life with examples of alternatives, history of change, and visions of the future. May I suggest The On Being Project


  1. RSA Animate video from a talk by Sir Ken Robinson on “Changing Education Paradigms”
  2. David Eagleman & Anthony Brandt, The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World
  3. Same as above, p.28
  4. Dr Helen Klus, “Imagining the future: why society needs science fiction
  5. Andrew Liptak, “X Prize assembled a supergroup of sci-fi authors to develop its next competitions
  6. adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, p.21
  7. Same as above, p.19
  8. A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”, video illustrated by Molly Crabapple

Originally published August 11, 2019 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.

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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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