A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it,
bearing within him the image of a cathedral. ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
Flight to Arras, 1942
Do you consider yourself an innovator? One component is creativity, thinking up novel and unique ideas. We are far from unraveling the complexity of imagination, fantasy, and creativity. The creative process is still cloaked in mythological language of muses and the voice of the divine. Trancendant mystery finds expression and reveals the deepest core of humanity. Creative people are often labeled a bit crazy, highly individual, adventuresome, curious, playful, and sensitive. Some would argue that creativity can’t be taught, that it is genetic. Others, for example the international competition Odyssey of the Mind, construct elaborate scenarios for students to grow and stretch their creative muscles.
There are tests for creativity: stray marks on a page from which you create a picture, how many uses can you think of for a brick, name the inkblot type exercises. Most of us recognize creativity when we see, smell, touch, and hear it, yet we differ in our descriptions of how someone else’s creative expression resonates in our own imaginations. Think of Bach, Mozart, Queen, and the Beatles White Album.
A child’s imagination is said to develop early on when they are struggling with issues of autonomy, shame and doubt. Fantasy is defined differently than imagination, fantasy being an experience that separates us from reality. Fantasy has the experience of a disconnect when we are forced to reenter reality (try telling your 11 year old daughter to leave a video game to help you with dinner and watch her reaction when she has to shut down the feed of dopamine the gaming experience is providing!). Contrast experiences of imagination, they smoothly transition back to reality. For example, we can mentally rehearse winning a basketball game, visualize a possible hypothesis for an experiment, or imagine spending our paycheck (that turns into fantasy when we pretend to get paid more than we do).
The saying goes that all things are created twice, the first time in imagination, the second with tools and materials. Engineering is the mindset that translates fantasy to imagination to reality. An engineering mindset is necessary for this skill of innovation. Without it, we simply have a collection of creative thoughts.