How to unlock your imagination

Get creative even if you think you're not

Posted Jul 26, 2010

Part 4 of becoming a visionary in five easy steps

As an intelligence officer who joined NSA shortly after 9/11, I was acutely aware of criticism leveled at NSA, CIA, FBI and others for failing to have an imagination. A big reason I was recruited into the agency in the first place was that I worked at an outfit-Walt Disney Imagineering-whose very name exuded creativity and imagination. "Haseltine is one of the guys who runs Imagineering", so the thinking went, "he must have a fabulous imagination."

But the sad truth is that my imagination isn't all that great, so for three decades I've had to learn to "fake it" and make others think I'm imaginative. The biggest asset I had in perpetrating this sham was my background as a neuroscientist. In studying the brain over the years, I'd learned a few tricks for coaxing that three pounds of flesh housed in our skulls into coming up with ideas that wouldn't normally occur to it.

For instance, all of our brains suffer from an affliction called "functional fixity" in which, when we look at an object such as a pair of pliers, all we can think to do with the object are functions for which it was designed. In a classic functional fixity experiment, test subjects are asked how they would-- without grabbing the end of the rope-- get the ends of a rope suspended from a ceiling to touch opposite walls. Aside from the rope, the only object in the room is a pair of pliers sitting on the floor. Most test subjects don't realize that the only way to solve the problem is to tie the pliers to the end of the rope, then swing it so that the pliers-acting as a weight-carry the end of the rope to one wall, then, in pendulum style, to the other. The few subjects who perceive the pliers as a weight instead of a tool, solve the problem.

It's possible to use the principle of functional fixity to come up with cool new ideas. One technique I learned at Imagineering was to see far into the future by looking at the present in novel ways.

In certain fields, such as information technology, the future arrives early in disguised form. For example million dollar supercomputers used for weather forecasting and nuclear weapons design have the same compute power that ordinary laptops will have ten years into the future. We know this because Moore's law-which states that the size and cost of computers shrink by a factor of two every 18 months-dictates that today's ultrafast mega computers will be tomorrow's laptops and the day after tomorrow's cell phones (I-phones have more compute power than a $10M super computer of the 1980's). Using this knowledge, Imagineers bought expensive supercomputers and programmed them to run consumer applications such as games and theme park experiences. These applications and experiences were far too expensive to be practical in the moment, but would one day become practical as Moore's law inexorably lowered the cost of computers. At Imagineering, we called these projects "time machines" because they provided an accurate view of what would be practical five to ten years into the future.

By shifting our perception of supercomputers from laboratory curiosities affordable only by a few, to future consumer devices affordable by many, we overcome our functional fixity to imagine, then create many cool entertainment experiences such as Toon Town Online.
You can overcome your brain's natural shortcomings and travel into the future as well. Just ask yourself what parts of the present that you see now are actually disguised versions of the future. For instance, at work you may use expensive video projectors that will one day become so inexpensive that you could have a projector in every room in your house. Today's expensive video conferencing systems are also bound to make their way into the home, as are solar cells, scanners that print out solid 3D objects and other modern marvels.

If you go through this exercise before others do, you'll be lauded as a visionary, even though all that you're really seeing is what's staring you right in the face.

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