Why Our Imaginations Suck, and How Our Lives Depend on Fixing Them

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Imagination is the use of abstract thinking to envision non-existent scenarios, often unlikely ones. Stories, movies and adults teach us that as we grow up we lose our imagination. It’s assumed that we trade in our visions of epic battles with fire breathing dragons and floors made of lava for a mind of reality. We become grounded in what is “real,” because understanding the real is what’s necessary to handle the responsibilities of an adult life. I disagree with the notion that this is necessary. I believe that we still have imaginations as strong as those from childhood, and that cultivating our imaginations makes us the greatest people we can be.

But the stories, and movies and adults are right in a way. It’s not that we lose our imaginations, but rather as we grow up a lot of us begin to use our imaginations for envisioning unlikely negative scenarios instead of envisioning unlikely positive ones.

We get stuck re-imagining past events, and how they could have gone differently. We relive embarrassing moments over and over in our minds, reviving the feelings of embarrassment intellectually and emotionally without any constructive end in sight. Or we imagine future events going horribly wrong and paralyze ourselves. We see a cute girl or guy who we want to say hi to, and then imagine every possible way in which it will go wrong. We see rejection. So, we don’t do anything at all.

The habits of our minds, and the actions they encourage us to take become our identities. As we think about the decisions we’ve made in life, we come to an understanding of the types of people that we are. We are funny people, or nervous people, or employees, or people who like salads, or people “who could never be good at [insert anything you’ve never done before]”.

There is another way to go about living. What if instead of imagining that embarrassing moment again, we spend that time and mental energy creating new ideas about what we think the world can be? What if instead of thinking about how that girl or guy is going to blow us off, we instead imagine the amazing things that could happen if that same girl or guy actually accepted our offer to grab a drink some time?

It takes active effort to reprogram the way we think about things. To do things that scare us and make us feel uncomfortable. To change the automatic thoughts that have been anxiously running our minds for years. But that effort is worth it. I’ve been working on this every day for the past year, and the changes I’ve made in all areas of my life have created astounding results. I’ve met amazing people and had totally unique experiences because I’ve started to force myself to imagine positive scenarios which propel me to action, instead of imagining negative scenarios that propel me nowhere.

I’ve met people in the Financial District at 3am, biked with them to Times Square at 4am, and closed down McDonalds singing Breathe by Anna Nalick at 5am, building a relationship that changed someone’s life (according to a letter they sent me) and my own in the process. I’ve started an art project with a friend that in one day helped me meet a Columbia student from Australia with a psychedelic YouTube channel, a German tourist and his daughter who taught me the basics of how to rock out to the blues, and a piano virtuoso who gets a little uncomfortable in large crowds.

Bluesy Germans on the right. Life / Artistic director credit to @bdoochin. Photo Credit to @TheDustyRebel

Ultimately, I’ve become more comfortable and confident with myself. Though not everything has gone right, I’ve become accustomed to taking action and working through the consequences of that action. Because growth and experience come not from the results that you get, but from the process itself.

It starts with taking baby steps. We can spend some time reading books that challenge us, spending extra time to take notes and re-read and question the words on the page, instead of just steamrolling through. We can start talking to more people- the clerk at the grocery store, the person next to us in line for coffee, or the homeless man on the street, instead of walking around with our headphones in. As we take these little steps, we start to grow…a little. We start to expand our notions of what is possible. Just like how we can only comprehend the size of a mountain once we arrive at the base, it’s hard to imagine what is possible without first taking a few steps out into the world.

At some point in this process, we begin to dawn on the realization that our identity is not actually fixed but something that we create every day. In uncovering new possibilities, we also uncover a personal potential that is far greater than we had thought before. And that potential is something that we can build our identity on, even if we aren’t there yet. Internal self-limiting thoughts of who we think we are, and external limiting pressures of who our friends think we are, will take a back seat to our newly uncovered understanding of who we can be. We may not think of ourselves as entrepreneurs, or good public speakers, or funny- but we could be wrong.

Taking small steps outside of where we exist today helps break down the notion that our identity is fixed. Recognizing the fluid nature of identity supports the realization that our potential is far greater than we had ever thought before. And this new understanding of our own potential is what creates a new found and vastly expanded capacity for imagination.

Once we have an expanded capacity for imagination, the reality we can create for ourselves is unbounded. All we have to do is act. And the beauty is that those actions then feed back into our understanding of an ever changing and growing identity, and our capacity imagination expands even further.

The process for developing this new capacity for imagination and the courage to act on it isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Replacing our imaginations of adult fear and worry with imaginations of adult possibility is one of the most powerful changes we can make to improve our lives.

I believe that not only should we make that change, but that we can.

P.S. Articles like this are all over Medium. I read three of them in the past hour. And they’re great and inspiring. My issue with most of them is that they don’t provide any ideas about how to change. I don’t want this article to be one of those. I don’t have the perfect answer for how to cultivate this new imagination, but I can help. And I would genuinely like to. Follow me on Twitter and we can private message to figure out how. Alternatively / in addition, follow me on Spotify to find awesome music that might help you on your journey.

P.P.S. An article which expands on my thoughts around identity is coming soon

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