Imagination Superconductors


Image by Shane Gorski*

Image by Shane Gorski*

I’ve been struck lately that the topic of imagination is everywhere if you look for it. Just open up today’s paper. It’s in the question of how we define success in Afghanistan. It’s in the question of why America’s green jobs sector is still not taking off. It’s in the paradigm shift that is creeping up on the NFL, in which players begin to imagine a sport less dependent on using an over-helmeted head as a weapon. And of course, it’s in the work of people every day in every profession. I spoke this week at a statewide conference of school counselors in Louisiana. These are people who are passionate about creating possibility in the lives of their students, and yet our society and our education system utterly shortchange counselors. The typical ratio, anywhere in America, is more than 500 students per counselor. How can that possibly work? A counselor, properly understood, can have as much to do with the sparking of a middle- or high-school student’s imagination—her sense of what she can do and be in the world—as any teacher or parent. But we are not set up to make those relationships between counselors and students work in any sustained and meaningful way.

This makes me look around and wonder where else in our web of relationships and institutions we are neglecting key nodes in the potential transmission of imagination. In business, having a visionary CEO is great. But the spread of imaginative thinking throughout the organization— the organism— depends critically on certain superconductors who are rarely as visible as a CEO. Do you know who those people are in your institution? And do they have the tools and the time to unlock the imaginative capacities of those around them? Imagination is certainly, as Scott Noppe-Brandon and I have written, a personal practice. It is also, however, a function of inherited structures of social organization. So let’s ask ourselves more often, of our schools and our governments and our charities and our businesses: are we optimizing for imagination?


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

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

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.

Challenge Your Challenges

Scott Noppe-Brandon and I believe fundamentally that imagination can be developed and stimulated. It’s not a “you-got-it-or-you-don’t” thing. And the evidence of this is all around us. Just the other day, for instance, Netflix announced the winners of a $1,000,000 prize for the team that could develop the most effective predictive modeling software (“if you liked Benjamin Button, you’ll also like…”). You can read about it here. By putting forth a bold goal with a big prize, Netflix sparked the imagination of countless programmers and customers around the world. In our book, Imagination First, Practice #25 is called “Challenge Your Challenges,” and it proceeds from just the same instinct that the Netflix folks followed.

One of the best ways to open people’s minds to wider fields of possibility is to examine the big challenges (if any) that currently define the scope of your field—and then to bust those challenges apart for even bigger ones. The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for powerful social change ideas are examples of great well-known challenges that prompt a scaled response of “What if?” But our point in the book is that everyone, in every workplace or social setting, can similarly set and define such challenges. Once the big goal is defined, and a comparably big reward is attached to it, it’s then a matter of trusting the ecosystem to generate new ideas and new ways of doing things. Not all the things that get imagined will be practicable; not all the things that are practicable will be genuinely innovative. But it all starts with expanding the pool of what’s possible. And challenging you challenges is a great way to start.

Dear Reader

Children coloringDear Reader,

We welcome you to the first posting of the Imagination Now blog. The blog comes into existence as a result of two factors: one, we have much to discuss and comment on cultivating imagination—at work, play, school, and home; and two, today’s technology allows us to share this conversation with more readers than we could have dreamed of back in that obscure twentieth century.

As Imagination Now featured bloggers, we bring to this work our experience as authors, public speakers, and administrators of successful, vital non-profit educational and public service organizations. Above all, however, we bring our passionate advocacy for educational excellence. (Please see our biographies for more specifics.) We are joined in this endeavor by a team of researchers, writers, and editors from Lincoln Center Institute, and, from time to time, articles written by eminent guest bloggers will be featured.

In this space, we will keep up to date with important events related to the imagination, review and link to imagination-related resources that might be useful to you, explore concepts related to imaginative teaching and learning, keep you posted on the Institute’s 50 Imagination Conversations, and the progress of our new book, Imagination First.

Whether you are an entrepreneur, an artist, a present or future educator, a parent, or simply a curious reader, we hope you’ll think of this space as your source for information—and perhaps even just a place to come to for a fresh perspective on the arts and education around the world. We hope, above all, to provide a space for dialogue about great educational practice. Readers’ comments are the lifeblood of any blog, and we look forward to hearing from you.

Here’s to imagination!

Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon