Imagination is a skill, not a switch
This week I’ve been thinking about a fantastic piece published in Aeon a few years ago that argues that people are losing our ability to engage in metaphorical thinking, and that this change is harmful in ways we don’t actively realize but that deeply affect us.
The piece points out the myriad ways in which our current way of living is firmly rooted in the concrete and literal: we have the ability to search for and reproduce any piece of information we need, we consume text on social media and over email that’s optimized to convey a single message with ruthless clarity as quickly as possible, and we film every notable moment we encounter on our phones, thereby eliminating the need for those we share those stories with to fill in any gaps in their interpretation of the event with their imaginations.
While these symptoms of a technologically comfortable world are certainly blessings nearly any way we look at them, the fact that they limit our minds’ need to – and therefore their likelihood of – making metaphorical connections to understand pieces of the world should give us pause.
Metaphor is the bridge between our outer world and our inner feelings; between our inner feelings and the ideas they inspire. If a poet is arrested by the sound of the breeze whipping through the trees around them and describe that breeze as an invisible stampede, they’re only able to do so by listening closely to their surroundings and to their internal response to those surroundings. It’s in this listening that they’re able to unearth their own unique way of looking at the world, which they then translate through their work.
It probably goes without saying that leaders and innovators stand to benefit immensely from maintaining this sort of active relationship with their imaginations. As leaders, being able to listen in this way brings us closer to our teams; as innovators, it enables us to envision new ways of tackling old challenges. The issue is, as Altfield and Diggs underscore in their Aeon piece, that when we spend so much of our lives immersed in non-metaphorical thinking, we can’t really just close our phones and immediately access the full range of our ability to imagine. That sort of thinking requires consistent engagement to remain healthy and useful to us.
Figurative Thinking – the exercise of reframing our challenges and opportunities by coming up with outlandish solutions to them, thinking of ways to make them worse, or however else we choose to slice them – has value here. While it’s always great when one of these exercises leads to a solution we feel passionate about pursuing, it’s equally (and possibly more) important that we engage in these thought experiments regularly just so we continue to evolve our capacity to think creatively about our challenges.
We may not be able to think as fast as the most powerful LLM, but we’ll always have our own perspective – and the only way to leverage its full potential is to stretch it every week so that when opportunities to challenge convention come along, we’re that much more likely to notice them, to push them in new directions, and to make our capacity to drive change real.