Imagination First, by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon (Softcover, 2009)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This book could be helpful to many people and even to society at
large. Unfortunately, the authors worked a bit too hard at driving that
point home. They took a hyperbolic approach that I didn't like.
Overstating something doesn't make it more relevant. Exaggerating the
role and effects of properly-developed tools of imagination won't make
those tools more effective. One of the authors had been a political
speechwriter, and it shows.
A major premise of this book is that we need more imagination if we
are going to solve the world's problems. Well, President Obama and the
United States CONgress seem to have ample imagination. They imagine that
doubling our already crippling national debt over the next 10 years will
somehow solve the nation's financial problems. Try not paying your bills
and then using that "logic" with your creditors, and see what happens.
There's no shortage of imagination. We may, however, have a shortage of
properly utilized imagination. But we have plenty of misused
imagination. For example, every failed government program (and if it's a
government program, it has probably failed) is the result of someone's
The premise that imagination is the magic bullet simply isn't valid.
That premise threads through this book perhaps because the authors want
to justify the book and so they egregiously over-sell the value and role
of imagination. Imagination has a vital role. Just not nearly as vital as the
authors seem to believe. Perhaps they are imagining that?
That said, this book has several valid and valuable premises. For
example, imagination is much like muscle. If you exercise it, you
stimulate it to grow stronger. But as with exercise, it's possible to
overdo it (the authors seem to overlook this). If you practice using it for a given purpose,
you become better with it (e.g., practice throwing basketballs and you
become better at throwing basketballs). This, of course, assumes you
aren't practicing in a way that merely reinforces poor form (the authors
seem to overlook this). Simply exercising won't make you stronger, and
simply practicing won't make you better. Fortunately, the authors
recognize this and provide insight to help with it.
As you read through the book and
uncover these various premises, you may discover untapped resources
within your own mind. More importantly, you may discover untapped resources within your
network of minds (friends, coworkers, etc.). And that's another premise
of this book: the real value of imagination is its use in a group.
One bit of advice in this book is harmful. I will address
that, in a moment.
This book consists of three Parts.
Part One, The Premise, consists of three chapters. It explains why
the authors wrote the book, what happens when imagination is stifled,
and how imagination can be nurtured.
Most of the book consists of Part Two, The Practices. The authors
provide 29 chapters (one of which is chapter 12.5 in addition to chapter
12 so the numbering is off by one when you get to chapter 13 which is
really chapter 14), each of which is called a "Practice." These are
short, often a page or two. Each presents a concept and then briefly
discusses it. Each ends with a short sentence that is apparently an
attempt to sound profound or clever, but I found those sentences
I reacted to some of these Practices with "Huh?," but found others to
be quite good.
One example of the Practices is "Think Inside the Box." Some years
ago, I was involved with a non-profit that was inflicted by a busybody
who was constantly pushing screwy ideas, violating the organization's
charter, advocating total disregard for established standards, and
actively engaging in copyright violation and other "civil lawsuit bait"
actions. His justification was, "We have to think outside the box." My
reply was, "Don't forget why the box is there in the first place."
Having constraints in place helps us properly use imagination. As
the authors say, there's a difference between throwing stuff at the wall
to see what sticks and throwing specific things at the wall with
Other examples include Untie Your Tongue, Don't Blink (based on
Malcolm Gladwell's second book), Play Telephone, Microexperiment, and
Design for the Hallway.
Maybe my favorite is Ride the z-axis, which in
itself justifies the purchase of the book. It explains the difference
between sprawl and density. It's here, IMO, where people tend to misuse
imagination. I also think the theme here should have been the focus of
the book. Had it been, the book would have been much more useful.
I said earlier that one bit of advice in this book is
harmful. I was referring specifically to one the Practices, which
advocates obsessive collecting. This recommendation is irresponsible. We
call obsessive behaviors "dis"orders, for several reasons. For example,
such behavior is aberrant and is an inadequate coping mechanism that
masks an unmet need. It's a wobbly crutch, and not only does it keep the
victim falling down but it also prevents resolution of the underlying
pathology that gave rise to it in the first place.
People with a compulsion often have deeper issues that are expressed
not just through this compulsive behavior but also in other destructive
ways. In the case of this particular compulsion, it is simply not
possible to clean a home, office, or other space that is jam-packed with
junk. I can't agree with anyone who encourages people to go out of their
way to provide living spaces for roaches, mites, and bacteria--or to
turn a home or office into a warehouse. Fuel load, egress, and other
issues also arise.
This chapter is an example of what happens when imagination isn't
properly constrained in reality before being put to use. And I think
this constraint issue is the fundamental problem with this book. As noted earlier,
politicians imagine all kinds of things. Just listen to their
reality-devoid speeches, and you see this. Look at the nonsensical legislation they pass, and you know some rather wild
imaginations have been in overdrive.
People imagine themselves to be such excellent drivers that they do
texting while driving an automobile. People even imagine there is a
material difference between the massively-spending, over-regulating Republicans
and the massively-spending, over-regulating Democrats (relevant to the
needs of the nation), despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary
over the past 150 years.
Well, OK, this isn't exactly what the authors meant by imagination.
They meant to think about what might be possible. And in that case, they
have a point that new possibilities
lead to new solutions. But to get new possibilities, you need to control
how you do your imagining. In short, people need to focus and pay
attention. But what do you do after you think about new possibilities?
They leave that question mostly unanswered.
And is there really a shortage, in general, of proper imagination? To
answer that, think back to, say, 1989. What kind of phone did you have?
Did you shop online? What other changes have occurred in the intervening
years, and how many of those were possible only because of imagination?
The changes have been astounding, and many things we take for granted
today were not even imagined only two decades ago.
Yes, it would probably be good to juice up imaginations a bit more.
Shut off that brainwashing machine (the television), maybe take some
time off the long hours you work to pay your personal share of
the $9 trillion federal current debt and $55+ trillion in unfunded
obligations, and just imagine. Get with friends and talk about something
other than weather, sports, and celebrities. The authors provide many
great ideas on how to do this. Think of how much more enriching your
life can be with this kind of interaction--people just coming up with
Part Three is basically an extended conclusion. Part Three itself
concludes with a recommended reading list that is fairly extensive. I've
read some of the items in that list, and recommend them myself.
Do I recommend this book? If you find yourself in a rut or you're in
an organization where it's same-old same-old and you'd like to get
things moving in a new direction, then yes. If you'd like new
experiences and more rewarding relationships, then yes. If you don't
think of yourself as all that creative and would like to make a quantum
leap in your brainpower, then yes.
If you are already engaged in
creative work, then maybe you'll find additional creativity stirred by
using the imagination Practices provided. If you're a politician, do not
buy this book--we've had enough of your crazy ideas already and you
really need to study accounting or some other topic that will help you
get a grip on reality.