Your Improvising Imagination

You have a remarkable imagination. Did you know? Imagination isn’t limited to the small percentage of humans that design rides at Disneyland or write bestselling novels. We all rely on the flexibility, keenness, and creativity of our imagination to make it through the day. Arranging and rearranging your schedule to get everything done. Mentally rehearsing how a conversation with a significant other will go. Planning a dish to cook that will fit in at a friend’s potluck (and thinking through the process of getting the ingredients and preparing it).

You are also a remarkable improviser. Improvisation can conjure images of a jazz musician effortlessly writing a melody on the fly or a comedian bringing the house down with jokes seemingly pulled out of thin air. But improvisation doesn’t require artists, stages, and audiences. We improvise in conversations with other people, in making our way through the surprises and challenges of parenting a child, while navigating the flow of highway traffic, and in getting a group of co-workers to complete a project.

All human beings, all the time, imagine and improvise. The two powers are inextricably linked. We each have an “improvising imagination” to creatively achieve the things we need to do and want to do. Stephen T. Asma’s illuminating and enjoyable book, The Evolution of Imagination, is all about how our improvising imagination works, how we got it, and how culture is shaped by it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in awhile.

After years and years of evolution, human beings now have a rich mental space–what Asma calls a “second universe.” The early human adaptations of anticipation and mimicry became layered with emotion and image-making, which became layered with language and self-consciousness. The second universe we now enjoy is a robust “environment of possibilities that exists concurrently with the stubborn physical world.” In it, we can run virtual simulations of the real world “offline.” What we want to say in an upcoming job interview. How the half-marathon this weekend is going to go. How we would have written the plot of the movie we just watched a little differently.

Our second universe is also a “repository of adaptive behavioral responses.” As we experience and learn while we grow, we come to acquire habits, information, and patterns that we can draw from. Chess players study an endless variety of moves–creating a mental encyclopedia of plays to watch for and use in a current game. Musicians and composers internalize scales, rhythms, and patterns of melody and harmony so that they have a rich foundation when performing and writing. All humans develop social cliches for small talk, attending meetings and concerts, and waiting in lines.

And the second universe is a sort of playground. It’s a space in which we daydream. Construct words, notes, and ingredients into stories, songs, and recipes of our own. Envision that we’re on the street in a place we want to travel. Play around with ideas and see how they fit together.

The mythological idea of imagination is wild flashes of originality as if from the heavens or a muse, or discovered in a state of ecstasy. But most of the time, imagination is a patient and deliberate process of trying, examining, and moving things around in the second universe of our minds. A process of taking perceptions, memories, ideas, images, and feelings, and making small tweaks and combinations of those existing things to create something new. If you deconstruct a favorite movie or song, you’ll likely discover it’s a clever blend of a handful that already existed.

Asma refers to this patient and deliberate use of our imagination as cold cognition. It has the benefit of time and conscious attention to run through simulations and new possibilities. Then reflection and revisions and reruns, on and on. Improvisation, on the other hand, is hot cognition. It’s reactive, instinctive, voluntary. In full-blown improvisation, you are simultaneously “composing and performing.” You don’t have the benefit of time to patiently think through several possibilities in your second universe, or stop halfway through the “performance” and start over.

In the most common improvisational situation, a conversation, once you say something the cat’s out of the bag. An insult, poor word choice, or incoherent sentence can’t be sucked back into your vocal chords. But by the nature of conversation, you also can’t leave the other person hanging for five minutes while you come up with the perfect next sentence. This is why conversations–depending on who it’s with and what it’s about–can be intimidating, stressful, and confusing. You have to rely on the repository of your second universe for facts about the person that will cater the conversation to them, cliched sentences you can modify for the moment, and shapes of previous conversations that you know had a good beginning, middle, and end. At the same time, you’re watching, feeling, and interpreting the verbal and non-verbal response of the other person. It tells you how your message went over and where to go next.

In a mostly involuntary and unpredictable way, when you’re in a conversation, you’re spitting out sentences with little or no time to form and revise them before they’re said. And then the other person responds and you–again, mostly involuntarily–interpret and analyze and say another thing. Back and forth, instinctively drawing from your second universe and absorbing feedback, until the conversation over. A conversation seems simple but is pretty damn impressive.

Our improvising imagination is what enabled human beings to survive over thousands of years and become the complex, creative people we are today. Some researchers think our biggest brain expansion occurred in the face of past climate change and the dynamic landscapes our ancestors found themselves in. “Reality is messy, always changing, open-ended, and relentlessly coming at you at hot speed.” We need hot and cold cognition to be able to survive and make it through the many situations and challenges we’re presented with every day.

Our improvising imagination has also opened up space to play and explore and seek understanding. It has given humanity everything from amazing films to Michelin-starred restaurants to inspiring attempts at describing the meaning of life. We all have tremendous capacity in our second universe for need and play. Whether it’s a conversation or something center stage, enjoy the adaptive creativity you have, and see where your imagination can take you.

La La Land and Possibility

My wife and I went to La La Land the other night, and man–what an artistic and emotional doozy. We love and watch musicals whenever we can. It’s such an interesting movie genre. Most films don’t have characters casually slide into song and dance. Musicals do.

But it’s not just that some singing and choreography break into the story once in a while. It’s that oftentimes when a musical’s characters do begin their song and dance, the line between imagination and reality is blurred. Things happen in many musical performances that are literally unreal. They go beyond the limits of space and time–like dancing in midair, or the characters being transported into a painting. Or, the performances portray things that we as the audience understand are only visions of certain characters because they haven’t actually happened. We’re peeking into someone’s imagination.

La La Land modernizes the musical form in very entertaining ways–like seeing a smartphone notification interrupt a dewy-eyed duet. But it also plays off of and twists your expectations of what a musical is–particularly how a musical ends. Some people think La La Land’s ending is brilliant, and some people hate it. I think it was super clever, though definitely heavy.

Without spoiling anything, what I loved about how the story played out–and the film as a whole–was how it used the characteristic blurring of imagination and reality of musicals to make a profound point about what it means to be human. Essentially, that we’re always moving between the world as it is and the world as it could be. Between reality and possibility.

We are so often driven and inspired by dreams of a brighter, more interesting, more successful life. To travel. To be an artist or an athlete. To find our soulmate. To find freedom. Only to be painfully reminded that there’s a draining day job to clock in for, bills past due, failed relationships, and a world around us ravaged by the darker forces of human nature. There is always messiness and tension. Our imagination, fantasies, dreams, and hopes–tangled with and torn down by harsh realities.

How do we make possibility–the world as it could be–become reality? What kinds of things can we change by our own choice, and what is out of our control? How do we process the very difficult human experience of things we cannot change but wish had gone differently?

Go see La La Land. Pay attention to what it’s saying about reality and possibility, and how it smartly exploits being a musical to do so. You don’t have to know or like Los Angeles. You don’t have to know or like jazz or acting. La La Land has very interesting and true things to say about something we all confront. Interesting and true things to say about being human.

This Week in Upgrades: July 25

Oh, hello! Here we are at the start of another week. How are you doing? Rested? Eager? Ready to keep the world new?

We’re in the midst of a fire-pocalypse in the LA area. Wildfires are common in California, but the Sand fire in Santa Clarita is uncommonly dire. Looks like the end of the world when the smoke-obscured sun glows an ominous red-orange, and ash is snowing down on you. Very unsettling.

What else happened this week?

Amazon is looking to use lampposts as part of their drone delivery network. Maybe drones are better than pooping pigeons?

We learned more about how wild birds and humans team up to get honey. Wonderful things happen when we work with nature instead of trying to subdue it.

Here’s everything you’d want to know about campfires. Just keep them contained, OK?

When we’re at ease, humans gravitate toward equality. In stress, hierarchy. Very interesting.

Do you remember what it was like to be small and the world seemed full of magic? We’re learning more about how kids understand fantasy, reality, and pretending.

Here’s Tesla’s “Masterplan Part Two”. Ambitious, but encouraging for society if they can make it happen. “The first time, possibly ever, that a green product with significant environmental credentials has been the thing everybody wanted.”

In the midst of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, members of the media try to explain why the media is failing us. This American presidential election has been a wild and depressing ride. Hopefully, a lot of beneficial change–media included–emerges out of the ashes.

Have a great week!

 

The Common Good: A New American Dream

It seems pretty clear at this point that the original American Dream isn’t something that’s ever going to be a reality for most people. The typical trades training or college education, good-paying middle-class job, family, kids, home, car, retirement, etc. path is a naive relic of capitalist optimism from decades past.

Today, for those who make it through college, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt without a payoff end date in sight. Finding a job becomes as much about a modern form of indentured servitude as it is entering a satisfying career. And because employment prospects are precarious, even people with high-level degrees can have difficulty becoming or staying employed with enough income to pay the bills. Nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to.

For those who are able to get some employment and income stability, only 13 percent of people worldwide say they find their job engaging. “For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfillment, or redemption…” 87% of workers around the world see the tasks they must complete as insufferable, pointless drudgery.

Is this the kind of world we want? Surely we can build something better than this.

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of Inventing the Future, think so. Though they cite plenty of sad statistics about the current state of affairs like the 13% one above, they still have grounded hope for an imagined future that would actually benefit everyone.

Inventing the Future advocates for what some call a post-work society. Instead of continuing to struggle for robust full employment–ensuring the original American Dream for everyone (which hasn’t happened and is extremely unlikely to ever happen)–we should aspire to full unemployment. Work would become something that you do only if you desire to. Maybe your personal passion is to spend time writing or counseling or farming. You can do that. Or, you just don’t work at all and spend all of your time with family, friends, traveling, and whatever else you want to do with the 80 or so years you’re given. Instead of being indentured to a soul-crushing 9-5 job that you may not even have next year, your life (and everyone else’s) is freed up to live it in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.

How is such a post-work future possible?

First, we need to transition to a universal basic income for all people. Each and every citizen receives a stipend of what they need to cover the basics to live: food, shelter, transportation, etc. Is this a costly project? No question. But as Srnicek and Williams note, “…most research, in fact, suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programs, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.” There are already a number of communities and countries considering a shift to universal basic income. And it’s not an entirely new or outlandish idea. Previous American administrations and Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, attempted to pass versions of it. It could have already become a reality several decades ago.

Having the foundation of a universal basic income will allow people of every socio-economic background to decide whether they want to do additional work or not. Maybe you want to dabble with being a professional musician. Maybe you want to hold public office. Or maybe you want to just have a day full of family, exercise, food, learning, entertainment, and other things that make you feel whole. The point is that the basics are taken care of. Work becomes a choice rather than a necessity.

But if many people don’t work because the inherent necessity is gone, who’s going to do all of the stuff that needs to get done to keep the world afloat?

Part two of a post-work future is full automation. Anyone who doesn’t see that the majority of existing jobs are already in danger of replacement by automated technology is in denial. Whether it’s 10 years or 50, anywhere from about 50-80% of jobs will see the human being replaced with some form of automation. Even for careers that seem irreplaceable like lawyers and chefs, there is already technology being developed that will be able to perform the same or better as the person currently doing it.

Instead of allowing this change to emerge without much reflection and planning, we should hasten it with strategy and financial support. After all, if only 13% of employed people like their job anyway, we should see automation as an ultimately good thing–developing technology that can slide in to perform the tasks we’d rather not do.

A universal basic income and full automation would fundamentally change the nature of what work is. And that’s good thing too. Instead of having to rationalize dehumanizing drudgery, paycheck-to-paycheck living, college debt, and the rest, we would have a society where work is truly only the vocational pursuits that add to our individual and shared humanity.

A post-work society like this is much more reflective of a world aspiring to what’s good for people. And, hopefully, we’re all coming to realize that what’s good for people is actually the common good. That’s an American Dream worth pursuing.

 

How to Adult: Dream in Years, Live in Days

As best as we can tell, the universe is almost fourteen billion years old. Earth, itself, is about four and a half billion years old. There is exposed rock in the Grand Canyon that is two billion years old. I can’t wait to see it myself later this year.

At up to 80 or 100 years, a human life is just a small sliver of time in comparison to the age of the planet we live on and the rest of the universe we find ourselves in the midst of. The writer of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible describes human life as fleeting as the mist out of a spray bottle–there and then floating invisibly into the next phase.

With just a vapor of time to work with, we owe it to ourselves to think about the course we want our life to take–to figure out how to “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau once said.

No one can have the whole thing planned out at the beginning, of course. Many of us grow up dreaming of becoming a fireman or the president or an astronaut–only to end up doing something much different. Even within a year’s time a lot can change.

But I would argue that there is a way to think about how to live a life that might help you get the most out of it, and it’s pretty simple. Dream in years. Live in days.

The bigger moves and chapters of your life take time. Anyone who decides to go to college rarely chooses to do so on a whim. And college itself takes a handful of years to complete–let alone graduate school if you keep going. Despite its prevalence in film and television, most people don’t decide to get married on a whim either. There’s a slow, sometimes agonizing unfolding of dating, rejection, doubt, dating again, engagement, wedding planning, and then eventually, marriage.

So dream in years. Where would you like to be a few years from now? Another country? Married? In a tiny house you built?

Who would you like to be a few years from now? More compassionate? Less stressed? An artist?

Use your imagination to set a horizon to journey toward.

And live in days. Imagining your future–dreaming in years–will set the path of where you’re trying to go. Living life out, day by day, is how you’ll actually get there. No day can be taken for granted. Life is fragile and unpredictable. “The best-laid plans often go awry.” You have to suck the marrow out of today, not just days in the future. So do the things now that will help you get closer to what you’ve imagined for the years to come, but let the day also feel full and complete on its own. Save up to move if you’re dreaming of moving. Start the degree if you need the education. Take a cooking lesson so you can make more of your own food. Get drinks with that person that you’ve been meaning to get to know better. And laugh, sweat, rest, dance, eat, love, breathe, watch, reflect. Some of the best days can feel like a whole lifetime.

You don’t need a doctorate in philosophy to resonate with Socrates’ lesson that the unexamined life is not worth living. By dreaming in years and living in days, I’m confident you’ll be off to a good start writing chapters of your life that you’ll be truly grateful for. You’ll leave layers of your time in the universe as remarkable as the rock of the Grand Canyon.

 

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.