Build observation skills – Supercharge your imagination
I talk a bit about imagination. It’s a very big idea, isn’t it. There’s a particular way I like to think about imagination and it’s in partnership with observation. This partnership is so well bound together that the sum total of both of them is our reality. But what happens when you play with the balance, take out some observations and replace them with imagination?
In this article I’d like to take you to the birthplace of creativity, which starts with the rejection of observations. I’ll take you through the basic ideas of it, some surprising examples of where and how this is done and then I’d like to give you some tips on how to start doing this as a conscious part of your daily practice.
You can’t observe everything, even if you try really hard. Let’s use a house as an example:
When looking at one side of a it, you don’t know what the other side looks like, unless you’ve seen it before. And even then, do you really know that it’s still the same as when you observed it last time? Wouldn’t the light be different because the time of day might be different causing shadows to be more or less stretched across the paintwork? Wouldn’t the wall be a slightly different colour due to the slightly different angle of the sun in the sky reflecting off and refracting through the imperfect surface of the paint. Maybe that bug that was crawling up the window frame when you first observed it is now crawling down the door frame.
And if you’ve never seen the other side, which is often the case when looking at houses from the street, you simply have to imagine what the back of the house looks like based on your previous experience with backs of houses.
Lets not get started on the inside, underneath of on top of the house.
You see, the only way to create a whole image of an object in your mind is to both observe that thing as best as you can and fill the gaps between those observations with your imagination, otherwise known as assumptions. It’s a perfect balance between the two. But when it comes to balance, its fun to tip the scales a bit sometimes. Let’s have a look at how this happens.
“I reject your reality and substitute my own.” – Adam Savage – Mythbusters
“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” – Erich Fromm
Creativity is the art of rejecting your observations. It’s the art of shifting the fulcrum (balance point) between what is observed and what is imagined.
The more observations you make, the less imagination is necessary to create a reality. The less observation you have, the more imagination is needed to create a reality. Therefore, to increase imagination and bring forth or create new concepts and ideas, you can choose to accept the observations you’ve made as reality or you can choose to reject them.
Take that house from before. While you’re looking at the front and can’t see the back you can start choosing to reject what you’ve previously observed. Even though you’ve seen that the back door is a tall rectangle with a boring handle, you can choose to reject that observation and replace it with something else. Using your imagination you could turn it into a glowing, rippling portal to an unknown land or a big round hobbit hole style door with a sign nailed to it saying ‘No admittance except on party business’. (For the uneducated, that’s a reference to story “The Hobbit’)
Phil Stamper-Halpin explains that “fiction readers look to you for that balance of fact and imagination. The more you know—of an era, a place, the intimate workings of a character—the easier it becomes to build this world, because you can write with a sense of knowing rather than an impulse to teach.” (Stamper-Halpin, Penguin Random House). He goes on to describe the art of researching and observing so as to make the created reality as real and acceptable to the reader as possible.
A good example of this is “Glover’s Ground Zero”. John Glover’s painting of an Australian Landscape with Gum Trees, dancing Aboriginals, and a river in the background were heavily influenced by his experience and observations of England. His creations weren’t exact representations of the reality that stood before him but an interpretation based on the balance between his observations and his imagination. In an article in ‘The Age’, The NGV director, Dr Gerard Vaughan says “He adapted the European conventions to the Australian reality,”. “The result was that he invented Australian landscape painting.” A lot of art is done this way. In fact, it seems that where there is a huge skill involved in recreating something from reality, the truly celebrated art is not an accurate representation of what’s observed at all. A truly great artist can break the rules to allow for creativity. Pablo Piccaso once said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” (Pablo Picasso)
Despite what you might think, science is extremely imaginative. Certain deterministic processes have creative phases to them such as imagining a hypothesis to explain observations that have been made and imagining tests that can be done to confirm or falsify hypotheses’. Even major theories about the foundations of life, the universe and everything consist of a very large portion of imagination and are constantly being tested to prove or falsify them. Really popular theories like Atomic Theory, Evolution and Quantum Mechanics. Although a good portion of these theories have been filled in with observations, there are considerable gaps between these observations to make room for imagination.
Where creativity comes into it is when you ask ‘What if? It’s by rejecting certain observations (either because they’re not well made or because they might be influenced by other external factors) and experimenting with what happens then. Without this breaking of rules and conventions, science would be very stale, sterile and quite frankly, boring. It’s by breaking these rules and getting out of the comfort zones of what is known that the juicy discoveries are made and intriguing theories are developed.
Einstein famously said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Albert Einstein)
We’re very creative when it comes to relationships. Tony Robbins gives a great example of a woman who asks a guy to go out for dinner one night and the guy says no. She instantly comes up with stories about how he’s not interested, has a girlfriend already, is married or is gay … and it goes on. But he points out that the guy simply means no, he’s got something else on instead. He’s actually interested but can’t go out for dinner on that particular night.
We as humans somehow have a terrible ability to observe one another and as such fill all those incredibly large gaps in our observations with our imagination. Not only that but we’re excellent at rejecting the observations we do make of each other and replacing them with our imagination to creatively come up with realities of our own. Sadly, this is not good for relationships. It is great to imagine futures and possibilities together but not so great to create false ideas about each other.
There are many more examples that I won’t go into such as music, advertising, politics, etc.
You can take anything you’re observing and be creative with it. Use all 5 senses. Imagine that a cactus is soft and great to hug. Imagine that electricity smells like fresh summer rain. Imagine that brussel sprouts taste like chocolate. This is all really just substitution of observations. You can also try to come up with entirely new concepts that you’ve never heard of or seen before.
Sound is a great medium to play with in this area. Here’s a little activity to try with being creative with sound.
This takes a bit of practice. Imagination is a muscle and can be strengthened. Don’t be discouraged if you find this exercise a little bit tricky or you keep getting distracted, you will get better the more you do it.
Let me leave you with a few excellent quotes about creativity that have impacted me and I hope leave an impression on you today.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
“Rejection is an opportunity for your selection.”