Borrowing my title, once again, from a songwriter (John Lennon, in this case), I feel compelled to investigate the phenomenon we refer to as “imagination.” It seemed like a reasonable follow-up to my recent essay on “wonderment.” After all, it seems these two go hand-in-hand.
The lyrics in Mr. Lennon’s famous song are certainly thought-provoking, which I am sure was his intent. But they may also seem, to some of us anyway, largely phantasmic, thus providing evidence that one’s imaginings need not be grounded in reality. Nor, for that matter, must they be mirthless. In fact, this sort of imagination can be enormously fun. Think: books and movies like The Golden Compass or The Hobbit, or The Never-Ending Story. Or a balanced Federal budget.
But another type of imagination can be far more rewarding in the long run. This type of imagination often leads to yet another phenomenon—innovation. In this case think: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin, to name a few. Edison’s imagination resulted in 1,093 patents, including, most notably, the phonograph (without this, I would have had to change my title), the motion picture camera (no fantasy movies) and the light bulb (I always picture Edison in a tin-type photo standing in his workshop with squinty eyes and scratching his white whiskered chin—and a light bulb over his head. How’s that for imagination?). Henry Ford imagined that there should be a way to manufacture horseless carriages so cheaply that anyone could afford one. And Steve Jobs imagined that we would soon need numerous digital products which we had no idea we were going to need—amazing. I must say, though, I think Mr. Jobs may have filched his idea for the iPhone from Chester Gould’s notion, back in 1946, that Dick Tracy needed a watch phone to properly conduct his detective work—except with a wrist strap, in his case. Jobs, on the other hand, imagined that he could replace the strap with a $30 plastic iPhone bumper, which probably cost about eighteen cents to manufacture. Mr. Jobs certainly knew how to monetize his innovations.
And sometimes the seed of a good idea may be evoked from sheer curiosity. Benjamin Franklin was, among other things, a scientist and particularly curious with regard to the nature of electricity, which at the time was available only from a kite flown on stormy nights. His discoveries and theories in this area of science eventually resulted in our completely taking for granted our virtually unlimited access to the electric power we now use for pretty much everything in our modern lives. And, importantly, none of the former imaginings could have been brought to reality without Mr. Franklin figuring out how to attach a kite to each of the electrical outlets in our homes.
So, it seems that good ideas start with imagination, and maybe curiosity, and often lead to innovation and, finally, wonderment. And it also seems that new and even more exciting ideas come from imagining what in the world we could do with something someone else has already imagined. Fancy that.