The Imagination Files

I am often asked where my ideas come from in areas where people regard me as creative. The answer of course is from my imagination. And although they know it to be true, people are never quite comfortable with the explanation.

Adults are not supposed to be reliant upon their imaginations. That part of their brain was to have been disconnected during the first semester of “How to be a Grown-Up School”. As adults, we are supposed to be grounded in reality—thinking of deadlines, mortgages and monthly reports. Our thoughts are to be supported by references (the documented thoughts of others). Original thought or expression is frowned upon and discouraged.

Luckily for us, there are some outliers—rogues. For some unknown reason, the imaginations of these people refuse to be terminated. They just keep thinking up the craziest of ideas. Unless well-established, our society tends to refer to imaginative people as daydreamers, crackpots, or worse yet, actors. However, once they have developed a reputation for success, the world is more tolerant. Derogatory adjectives are replaced with terms like thought-leader, genius or laureate.

If it has been a while since you stretched your muscles of imagination, it is unlikely that you will synthesize fully-articulated visions on the fly. However, no matter how repressed you may be, an occasional creative thought will float through your brain. The key is to learn to recognize these thoughts. Instead of inhibiting your creative spirit, learn to nurture it.

When I see something funny, or wake up from a thought-filled dream in the middle of the night, I write down my thoughts and place them in a file. At first my idea file consisted of a manila folder filled with scraps of paper. Each scrap had something different: a sketch of a ligand, a molecular-orbital diagram, or a phrase I had heard someone say. Eventually, I transferred the thoughts into electronic files in my computer. As my collection grew, I organized them into folders by topic.

Take a moment to print this article and file it under “I” for imaginative, ingenious, and insightful. Then, at least once a day, add a file of your own to the folder. Don’t worry about what others might think of your ideas. Don’t worry if your thoughts are incomplete. What is important is that you cultivate your mind and plant seeds for the future. Because if you do, you will surely reap the benefits. This article will serve as a buffer for the times when you feel intimidated. It will also serve as a reminder of what you are to do.

As your idea file grows, your thoughts will begin to congeal. You will also notice more and more ideas as your recognition skills sharpen. Eventually, you will feel confident enough about your thoughts that you will feel comfortable sharing them with others.

In the end, it won’t matter that your thoughts — or my thoughts — were weird or eccentric. It will only matter that we contributed to the science and to society through original thought.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the newsletter on July 23, 2007.

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