“What you do is create a vision of what you
want to be and then live into that picture
as if it were already true.”
-Arnold Schwarzenegger

The word “imagination” has always resonated deep within my soul. In my imagination, I can go anywhere, be anyone and accomplish anything. As a child, I lived and dreamt within my imagination. As a young man, I trained as an actor, threw myself into studying the mind, wrote two books on creativity and performed a one-man show entitled “Journey into the Imagination.” Later, I developed programs on creativity and leadership for the business world and have devoted myself to studying brain science and researching the true nature of the imagination.
When you think of the imagination – what comes to mind? Do you automatically connect imagination with creativity? Is there a difference between creativity and imagination? You bet there is!
First let’s examine creativity. Creativity is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the quality or ability to create. Look at creativity as the rearrangement of the old into the new or – quoting from the creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson – creativity is “having original ideas which are of value. It is the source of every form of human innovation and at the root of every distinctive human achievement.”
The imagination is defined as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” We can imagine phantasmagorical scenes that bear no resemblance to reality or we can project in the future and imagine numerous alternative paths to achieving a goal. The imagination is open-ended and unlimited. It is our greatest gift. While creativity involves intelligence, anyone can imagine anything within the realm of their own metaphorical box. Imagining is automatic.
In order to be creative – we first have to imagine something. Being creative is then taking the “something” imagined and finding an effective way to communicate it in a way others can interpret it. Until what is imagined is turned into reality, it simply remains trapped in the world of fantasy. When what is imagined is transformed into something tangible – such as a product, service, song, artwork, book, landscaping or architecture – then it is truly a creation.
Think of creativity as “applied imagination,” a term that is now used in counseling, therapy, healing and peak performance coaching. It means putting your imagination to work in a purposeful and strategic way to make something new and, hopefully, unique. Imagination allows the generation of ideas, the ability to conceive something that has never existed, divergent thinking and problem solving.
As young children, we had no boundaries or limits put on our imagination. Our imagination provided limitless possibilities. However, studies have shown that – during the process of education – our imagination is often stifled. As we develop, we are taught only to imagine within certain boundaries and often put into a mold which we then, subconsciously, learn to adapt to: a mold that contains all forms of fear, including but not limited to – superstition, prejudice, failure and rejection. In school and work, we have learned that – if we didn’t play by certain rules – we would not be accepted.
Here are some facts about the imagination. When you are in a totally conscious and aware state, you never stop imagining. Yet it is impossible to perform in a way that is inconsistent with the way you see yourself or the way you see the future. Humans are genetically designed to identify anything that is a threat or a challenge to their survival and to deal with it. Survival is at the core of our being. This means that you are designed to spot and solve problems and, therefore, more likely to see the bad rather than the good. Your survival programming will influence you to notice what doesn’t work instead of what does, to see lack instead of abundance and fear instead of love. And I am almost certain that – sometimes – your imagination gets so out of control that you interpret circumstances, people or something imagined as a threat to your survival.
While we never have to work at imagining a fear-based future, we all must learn the necessary skills to direct and apply our imagination for a possibility-based life. The greatest proponent of the imagination was physicist Albert Einstein. There is one Einstein quote that sums up the importance of the imagination. “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”
Before I give you tips to unleash, harness and apply your imagination – in both the short and long-term – I must confess that I am making an assumption about you, the reader. I am assuming that you want to improve all areas of your life and – this is a big one – that you are willing to put in a little work to do that.
Be aware: In order to apply your imagination, you must first become aware of how you imagine yourself and your future. Looking in the mirror of your mind takes courage, honesty and the willingness to look fear in the face. Before you can transform the negative to a positive, you must know what you need to transform. So hit your pause button, take a breath and ask the questions: “How do I see myself as a (You fill in the blank…parent, partner, leader, salesperson, athlete, etc.)?” Then ask yourself, “How do I see my future?” Imagine six months, a year or five years in to your future. Include how you see your relationships, your job, your health, your goals, desires and dreams.
Turn negative thinking into positive action: Write down one thing you fear about the future. Then apply your imagination in a positive way by asking the question: “What specific steps can I take to prepare myself, my family or my business for a worst case scenario?” This is using negative thinking to trigger your imagination for both finding a positive solution and preparing for the worst-case scenario. Only then can you mute worry and let fear go.
Reduce negative stress: By using your imagination, you can either create being stressed or – being centered and calm. Negative stress kills creativity, crushes motivation and can impact your health. Being centered enhances creativity. And it’s your choice. Here’s a simple, powerful exercise that takes only 60 seconds. Close your eyes, take three slow, deep breaths and imagine the most relaxing, peaceful place you have ever been. Within seconds, your heart rate will slow down. In one minute, you are centered. Put this tool in your mental tool kit.
Reframe: The imagination can magnify or mute your fears. If you find yourself trapped in a negative or fear-based frame of mind, close your eyes and notice the mental movie of fear or negativity. Take the picture or image and make it black-and-white, put a frame around it and then slowly push it away, gradually making the image smaller and smaller – until you make it disappear. Then, think of someone you care for deeply. Open your eyes. Notice how your mindset has shifted to the positive.
Test your imagination: Choose one goal you want to achieve, either personally or professionally. It could be completing a project, healing a relationship, bumping up your sales numbers, growing your business or improving your golf game. Write it down and – this is a must – visualize your goal AS IF it has already been achieved – now. Imagine it in the greatest detail possible. What would it look like, feel like, sound like or smell like? Detail triggers the imagination to come up with ideas on how to successfully complete your goals.
Free your imagination: When you are using your imagination to generate ideas or picturing your path to achieve a goal, you want to avoid allowing reality to stifle possibility. That’s what keeps you stuck in the status quo. The tendency is to allow negative judgment to kill a possibility before it can be explored. “Yes, that is a good idea but… (You fill in the reason something cannot work.)” Keep saying: “I understand this…but what if it is possible?” Keep saying to yourself: “What if it is possible…” and you will override negative judgment. You give your ideas a chance to develop without limitations. Eventually, of course, you have to bring reality back in the equation but – before you do – keep your energy and enthusiasm sparked by asking, “What if it is possible…?”
Go for the second or third right solution: It is natural to pursue the first good idea you come up with. But the beauty of the imagination is that we can project into the future and imagine multiple paths to take and an abundance of ideas to get there. Brainstorm with yourself or others to come up with as many ideas as possible before you choose the most interesting and energizing one to pursue.
Feed your imagination: There is only one way to feed and free your imagination and that is to be curious – about everything. Learn as much as you can about subjects you are interested in. Read something that stimulates your imagination, even if it is for fifteen minutes. Listen to music, see a play or watch a movie. Hang out with people who are enthusiastic. Pro-actively seek out and have conversations with individuals who are in different professions. Widen your world and feed your imagination every day.
Follow these eight tips and you will become an imagination expert.