Imagination and Serendipity


Image by Julia Clark-Spohn

Image by Julai Clark-Spohn

Over the last few days, my co-author Scott Noppe-Brandon and I have been part of two great public events: the Washington State Imagination Conversation, held in Seattle on Oct 16; and a talk we did Tuesday night at the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble in New York.

The Seattle event, held in the glass-enclosed upper lobby of our city’s gorgeous opera house, was a rich and interactive forum with five panelists and well over 200 attendees. The panelists were amazing: Yoky Matsuoka, a pioneer of neurorobotics at the University of Washington and a MacArthur fellow; Erik Lindbergh, aviator, educator, artist, and grandson of Charles Lindbergh; Harmit Malik, a cutting-edge cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Joby Shimomura, a prodigy political activist and organizer turned stained-glass artist; and Linda Hartzell, the director since 1984 of the acclaimed Seattle Children’s Theater. They made our job as moderators easy: they connected unlikely dots, they shared stories both deeply personal and inspiringly public, and they spurred attendees to jump in with their own ideas and inquiries. The attendees were leaders and practitioners of education, arts, politics, business, parenting, technology, and more. And at two different intervals, they drove the conversation, chunking into little crescents of four or five to explore one of the practices from Imagination First, and then regrouping as a whole to report back their insights and prod the panel into new conversation. It was a thrilling way to engage our community. Continue reading

On the Road: Part One


Image by geishaboy500*

Image by geishaboy500*

The last few weeks have seen the kick-off of the Imagination Conversations national initiative, a project of Lincoln Center Institute. I was thrilled to serve as moderator at the first two conversations, which took place at the Governor’s Mansion in Oklahoma City and at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zipping from one to the other, I saw firsthand that imagination is spreading—and I was proud to be a contagion.

The OKC conversation sported a remarkable roster of panelists: CEO Cliff Hudson, State Senator Clark Jolley, newspaper publisher Mary Mèlon, medical researcher Steve Prescott, composer Jerod Tate, and university president Roger Webb. I don’t have space here to transmit the full body of their wisdom, but I will say a few words about Hudson, who runs the drive-in food chain Sonic Corporation and whose career settles all doubts about whether imagination has a place in the business world. Continue reading

I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger than That Now


Image by Super is Sunny*

Image by Super is Sunny*

If you tell a story about yourself for a long enough time, you start to believe it. That’s when you’re in trouble.

I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and went to jail for it. That sentence may conjure up inflammatory images in your mind: mass demonstrations of bearded, long-haired 1970s radicals; smoke from burned draft cards wafting upward to the sky; men and women thrusting V-shaped fingers high into the air. But these cultural tokens obscure the truth, namely, that I was a young man who believed in alternative public service and wanted no part in the U.S. military action in Southeast Asia. Little did I know that in later years I would come to let my wartime decision define me—hinder me—and that one day I would need to move past it. Continue reading

A School Grows in Portland

Image by Iñaki Vinaixa

Image by Iñaki Vinaixa

On the other side of North America, far from Lincoln Center Institute’s New York City office, sits Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, home to the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG). Founded in 2001 by Simon Fraser faculty and guided in part by the work of Professor Kieran Egan, IERG consists of “researchers, teachers, graduate students, parents, and others” who advocate an educational approach called Imaginative Education. Similar as this sounds to what we do at LCI, it’s not identical, the most basic difference being that our core philosophy involves the development of ten “Capacities for Imaginative Learning,” whereas IERG’s is based on “five distinctive kinds of understanding” that students may achieve with the aid of certain “cognitive tools.” But the two organizations share a common practical goal: we want to see imaginative teaching and learning in classrooms.

To this end, IERG has joined with the Corbett school district in Portland, Oregon, to open the first charter school based on Imaginative Education principles this month. The culmination of several years of partnership—IERG members have given workshops at Corbett, and teachers and administrators from Corbett have attended IERG conferences—this international venture is a worthy object of study for those of us interested in implementing imaginative curricula in schools.

Lincoln Center Institute is also moving through the application process to open a charter school here in New York. We would be wise to stay informed of the Corbett charter school’s progress and learn from it as we look ahead to our own future endeavors. And now, when the doubtful ask, “But what does imaginative education look like?”, part of our answer can be, “Corbett.”

Fail Well

Eric Liu with co-author Scott Noppe-Brandon at the October 8th event. Photo by Jessica Handrik.

Eric Liu with co-author Scott Noppe-Brandon at the October 8th event. Photo by Jessica Handrik.

Last night we held the New York Imagination Conversation at the New York Public Library for the Performing arts, located at Lincoln Center. It was such a rich discussion—the panelists included jazz violinist Zack Brock and astronomer Luke Keller, both featured in the new book, Imagination First, plus film producer Adam Brightman and Leslie Koch, the impresario of Governors Island. The practice from the book that came to my mind most often during the conversation was “Fail Well.”

Each of these luminaries spoke powerfully about the force that has most often stifled their imagination: fear. Fear of failing, in particular. Each of them, as teachers and leaders and creators, has had to reckon with the possibility of public failure. And each of them has created cultures— in a classroom, on a movie set, in public spaces or private clubs— where failing is treated as a necessary and useful part of not failing. They *practice* failing, with a spirit of continuous experimentation.

That’s how Governors Island is developing into such an unusual and vibrant space under Leslie’s stewardship, how Luke teaches students to interpret the dust of the heavens, how Zach harnesses every past influence to serve each moment’s improvisation, and how Adam inspires confidence on the set and creates an environment that allows the film to develop. They remind us that, for all the external forces that inhibit possibility, our own voices of self-doubt are often the greatest enemy of imagination.

Click here to learn more about the Imagination Conversations project.

Imagination Viewfinder

IMG_0112[1]Did you just take a picture?

What images inspire you? Are you delighted by pictures of people, buildings, nature, the cat in the window, the barge on the Hudson, the child on the swing, the orange peel on the table? Whatever your inspiration, we would love to see an image of something that fuels your imagination.

Scott Noppe-Brandon and Eric Liu, authors of Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility (Jossey-Bass, 2009), are interested in the sources people draw upon as they unleash their imaginations.

Join our Flickr group and share your favorite photograph that fires your imagination. Add an explanation, if you like, of why it has helped you imagine and where it has taken your imagination. Happy focus!


Lincoln Center Institute (LCI) is proud to facilitate this sharing of images. The images belong to their authors and do not necessarily represent themes endorsed by LCI. LCI has the right to remove any images that LCI, in its sole discretion, finds to be objectionable.

Man with a Kite

 Franklin Graduating at Wharton by SolYoung*

Franklin Graduating at Wharton by SolYoung*

Bifocals, the catheter, the lightning rod, the odometer, the mechanical armonica, swim fins: all of these sprang from the mind of Benjamin Franklin. So did the United States’s first academy, hospital, and library, respectively. When he wasn’t occupied with the founding of our country, Franklin was a prolific scientific and social innovator, an embodiment of the productive power of imagination. After all, where do new devices, techniques, and ways of living originate if not in our heads, our imaginations?

Author and illustrator Maira Kalman celebrates Franklin’s life as an inventor in “Can Do,” a recent installment in her monthly graphic Op-Extra blog column for the New York Times. With bright, colorful, elegantly cartoonish illustrations and deadpan New York humor, Kalman provides a hit-and-run history of Franklin’s career and, ultimately, links his imaginative ethos to the American spirit (“Don’t mope in your room. Go invent something”). Of particular interest to me is the great man’s daily goal chart; what does his rigidly structured day suggest about setting aside time for imaginative thinking?

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.