The Imagination Worker

What do you think is your most valuable skill in the engineering workplace?

Is it something related to your education or degree? Is it your vast tribal knowledge acquired through years of dedication and hard work down in the company trenches? Is it your total mastery of five different CAD systems, plus Oracle and the complete Microsoft suite of Office products? As Napoleon Dynamite asserted, ‘skills’ are vital to your success in life. Yet I propose that one skill stands apart from all of the others: Imagination.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

But how does imagination work? What triggers creativity? Is the capacity for inspired thinking a genetically derived talent, or is it the culmination of education and experience? I believe that it’s a little bit of both. One way to define creativity is the pairing of ideas and concepts in new or unexpected ways. One definition of Engineering is the creation of things which have never existed before. So, if we want to be better engineers, perhaps we should try to increase our creativity? If it is possible to improve our creativity, then what education, activity, or experience should we seek?

In the following paragraphs, I will share some of my ideas that may help you make connections and be more creative. (I have in fact tried each of them at least once) I would welcome comments or feedback, or alternative suggestions from any of the readers.

Watch a television program that you have never seen before. I’m not advocating watching more television, so skip an episode of CSI and select something completely new in its place. Make a thoughtful selection from the TV guide listing in advance; don’t just surf into some show that catches your attention.

Take a night class or attend a seminar. Pick something that is totally unrelated to your work or current hobbies. Don’t worry about finding applications or cross-over; just enjoy the class and the process of learning something new. Do try and learn the name and interests of everyone else in the class.

Watch a movie in a foreign language, but don’t read the subtitles. Or, just turn off the audio. The idea here is to focus on the images in the film. Look at the characters, the sets, and the landscape. Make up your own story that goes with the imagery.

If you like to read, try any of the next three things; but no cheating. Read the entire thing, cover to cover, front to back, even the ads:

Read a newspaper, from a city other than the one you live in. (If it’s from a different country, even better) Buy a paper when you travel, or ask a friend or relative to send you one from their city if you can’t find something available locally. Then tuck it away in a file cabinet and read it again one year later.

Read a magazine that you have never seen before. No, not one of those magazines, something that you wouldn’t be embarrassed by if your mother caught you reading it. Magazines are a unique window into subjects involving unique communities, interests, or activities. Pick one that you know nothing about and dive in.

Read a book that was written at least 100 years ago. The theory here is to get the perspective of someone from a century ago. Next, using your new perspective read a book written within the past year and try to imagine how the book will sound to someone 100 years in the future.

Find a new route to and from your job, cabin, or favorite hangout. Notice what’s along the new path.

Start (and finish) your own painting, drawing, or sculpture and present it to your family and friends. Talk about it. (If you fear negative feedback, you may at first claim that someone gave you the artwork, or that you found it at a yard sale while taking a new way home from work.)

Play ‘What-if’ with someone over lunch. Make it a long lunch, and jot down the ideas as they surface. Not sure how to start? Try ‘What if electricity was free?’, and see where you end up. Just don’t speak with your mouth full. Keep the list and read it from time to time.

Try a different hairstyle for a week. You’ll see yourself differently, and others will, too. There’s no telling where this may lead. Check with HR before doing anything involving bright neon colors.

Pick an idea you’ve had on the back-burner for as long as you can remember, and make it a reality; or at least take a step that will begin to make it a reality. Try and sneak a little work-time each day on an un-authorized pet-project that you care about, one that might be useful to your department or company. Some truly great products and discoveries have started this way.

Pick a game that you don’t know how to play, and learn it. Find a group of people that plays the game and make some new friends. Chess and Go are classics, but any game that’s new to you will work.

Remember, your actual mileage may vary. Stay open to new ideas and keep mixing different things together. I can’t promise that any of these activities will work to improve your creativity skills, but hopefully you’ll have some fun in the process. Imagine that.

By: Philip Bryans
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  • if you have the time, you are not in the game April 12, 2006
    Reviewed by 'actualidad'
    Wondering whether some people have connections such that regurgitated self help speak wins awards, another thought comes to mind. Some people have an awful lot of time on their hands. Those of you who do not have trust funds would be well served to ignore this "advice" to stop working and enjoy life. Rather, save first and enjoy life only a bit for now. Economic upheaval will not affect people like the author of the piece, not because they are postured as brilliant but because they have the funding to have the free time to re-cast well worn platitudes. And that wins awards? Sort of makes you wonder who are the relatives of the people with the keys to the shop - OR, perhaps there is a huge population of people without focus in their lives desperate for a vision thing. Don't worry about it if you are a good person, you are on the path. If not, then watch out because your friends are not so true after you do them or they see you. Some time out to help others is appropriate, but not if you cannot afford to raise a family.

    PS: You professors out there, especially physics professors, when you say that "you don't make any money doing this, but if your heart is in it you are paid for what you love." You guys are just whoring really cheap labor when you do that to working people. If you have any honor you will say that if a youth excited about physics wants to raise a family this would not apply. Ask the student if they want a family. Have the honor of letting them know that the non-DoD high tech field competes citizens against people that want a green card more than the salary for the most part, and if you are a citizen, you don't need the compensation (gree card). Sure, creative adventures are fine, then you are 40 and looking back you could have had a family but never had the money to feel comfortable to do that, and at this age all that is out there is divorcees with children and huge things that teenagers think they love (women - stay away from that surgeon if you want to be more attractive through the duration). Creativity is great in a free market, but if your field "has a shortage of qualified workers" then you are not in a free market society but rather a subsidized one, the companies crying to Wash. DC are not telling the truth. It is impossible to have a shortage in a free market society.

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  • A New Perspective February 08, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Greg Frost'
    The points brought up here are an interesting perspective. It is to often that we get caught up in the daily routine of family, friends, and work and forget that someone else's daily routine may be of more interest to us than our own.
    Creativity is underated and whether it nets you millions or not it, will certainly result in a broadened perspetive of the world around you.
    Few things are free, creativity is one of them.

      One person found this review helpful.

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  • The Imagination Worker February 06, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Philip Bryans, Sr.'
    This article will get you off the "dime" in your life or you will just stay like you are but you won't be able to complain any more because you made that "decision". It's to easy to say I can't or I won't but better to try and possibly fail than do nothing. Thanks for the motivation.

      4 of 4 found this review helpful.
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  • what the heck? February 15, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Gabriel Batistuta'
    It is paradoxical: if you are creative, you will try one or many of these things else, you wont even think about them. Not the other way around as portrayed here.

      One person of 3 found this review helpful.

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