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Book Review of: Imagination First

How to unlock the power of possibility

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Review of Imagination First, by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon (Softcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: 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 imagination.

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 annoying.

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 specific intent.

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 possibilities.

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.

 

 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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