11/08/2011 08:53 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2012

The Squandered Superpower: How America Has Stunted Imagination

Think of a number between 1 and 10. Got it? Now, how many of you reading this thought of the number pi? Or how about e? The brain is certainly capable of giving those kinds of answers. But that is not the way in which many of us have been taught to think. 

Throughout most of my life, I've been tasked with, and rewarded for, solving simple problems and answering simple questions. What is the natural log of 4? What is the color of calcium when put in a Bunsen burner flame? Why were the colonists angered with King George III? This information is basic and important. But far too late, if ever, are we challenged to use more of our imagination, to think, if you'll excuse the cliché, "outside the box."

In a talk at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA), journalist Daniel Pink spoke about an interesting phenomenon in the business world. Pink referenced an Australian software company, Atlassian, that told their employees one day, "For the next 24 hours you can work on anything you want. You can work on it the way you want. You can work on it with whomever you want. All we ask is that you show the results to the company at the end of those 24 hours." Consequently, Pink noted, "that one day of pure undiluted autonomy has led to a whole array of fixes for existing software, a whole array of ideas for new products that otherwise had never emerged." When we allow our minds to tap into the infinite universe of imagination we possess, the results are astonishing. But the importance of innovation and imagination is not just limited to high-tech businesses like Apple or Google. Our ability to think unconventionally is critical to every aspect of our society. 

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, many criticized the intelligence community for a lack of imagination. An attack where the weapon of choice would not be a bomb or a chemical weapon, but rather commercial airliners seemed beyond the realm of possibility. In fact, some even scoffed at the idea. While being briefed by the FBI on security for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Richard Clarke, chair of the Counterterrorism Security Group, asked an intriguing question: "What if somebody blows up a 747 over the Olympic Stadium, or even flies one into the stadium?" Clarke recounts the response he received to what we now consider a legitimate question: "The Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta FBI Office was steaming under the cross-examination from the Washington know-it-alls. 'Sounds like a Tom Clancy novel to me,' he sneered." It was indeed the plot of a best-selling thriller by Clancy, except instead of the Olympic Games, the target was the U.S. Capitol building. 

There's a famous quote from Dr. Ralph Gerard that says, "Reason can answer questions, but imagination must ask them." Society presents us with abstract problems; they aren't as simplistic as a math proof or a supply-and-demand graph. We face problems like predicting the method of future terrorist attacks, creating new products that consumers will want to buy and use, or designing new medical technologies that will save lives and ameliorate suffering. The basics of math, science, history, English, and language that we learn in school are fundamental to our advancement. But that knowledge serves merely as a foundation. Also, much of what we take away from secondary education is not specific facts or processes (I don't know about you but I'd have some major difficulty solving a stoichiometry problem now), but rather how to think. We are supposed to sharpen our intuitions and learn new ways to approach problems. 

The human brain is the most complex phenomenon in the world. And yet, the way we structure our education and work environments limits its power. Society benefits from those who take the knowledge they acquire and combine it with the personal imagination that is unique to all of us. But in order to translate this idea to all facets of society, we must first ensure that the value of imagination is incorporated and rewarded in schools. 

This presents us with some key questions: What can we do to foster innovation? How can we cultivate imagination and creativity? How do we spark curiosity and inspiration? Maybe a day of autonomy to work on designing one's own experiment in Physics lab, to ask questions like what if or why, can evoke the same kind of imagination shown by the Atlassian employees. Perhaps a week's worth of English homework with the simple charge, "Write," can awaken passions that would otherwise be confined to Shakespeare critiques and essays on The Scarlet Letter. There's no doubt that direction in education is necessary, but so is self-direction. And we can implement an environment more conducive to imagination without compromising the basics, an environment where scientific, literary, or historical knowledge is combined with autonomy of thought. 

We must also note that much of our world is static. The physics of flying did not change when the Wright brothers came along. The science of sound waves and electrical impulses was no different before Alexander Graham Bell. Sure, we make important advancements in our technical knowledge of the world around us, and this knowledge is the basis for these great inventions. But it took the imagination of these inventors to ask the question of whether a device can be created to fly a human being in the air or vocally communicate with someone far away. Every advancement we make is due to people asking questions that no one else asked before them. It's an obvious statement, but one that is not made as often as it should be. Imagination builds on imagination; the innovations of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would not be possible without the initial invention of the computer. We can never underestimate the amount of ideas that are immured within our minds, waiting to break free. As people, imagination is the closest thing we have to a superpower, and right now, we're squandering it.

So close your eyes. Put on some music. Take a stroll down your street or stare out the window of your room or car (not while driving of course), and turn your mind into a blank whiteboard. Think about something that's not possible. Actually, let me rephrase: think about something that's not yet considered possible.