With the state of the world and with the state of some clients, I have been wondering again about our need to activate civic imaginations in our lives, work, and culture-at-large. “So much of who we are, no matter where we live, depends upon how we imagine ourselves to be,” writes Azar Nafizi in her loving tribute to the United States and its fiction, The Republic of Imagination.
How we imagine ourselves to be. What does that mean for us as leaders, thoughtful business owners, and change-makers of all stripes?
Sunset on humanity
As a friend and I hiked near dusk the other day, he told me about the book he had been reading – often at 3 am when he couldn’t get back to sleep. It was Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) – a thorough analysis, as he described it, of how leaders rose among mobs during Nazism and Stalinism. As the sun set before us, he said, “I’ve lost faith in humanity.”
Hearing someone I care about say that kind of took my breath away. In one sense, I can understand that feeling. At times you might have felt hopeless in this new world of work when it comes to changing fundamental facets of your work, business, health, or life – let alone of the society you inhabit. It’s possible that someone has betrayed you, cheated you, or deceived you.
And if news headlines warp your view of reality, you can be tempted to think that “the rest of the world” you don’t know is full of either dupes or dupers. Can other people change? Can we as a species change for the better?
Losing faith in humanity? That seems like surrendering the drive to live, the courage to imagine something better, and the creative grit to act on that vision. It’s essential – and possible – to bring a sense of wonder to this new world and this new world of work.
At some point, I mentioned to my despondent friend John Steinbeck’s 1961 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature. I couldn’t recite it then, but here’s the part I told him about:
“[T]he writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love,” Steinbeck said. “In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
Steinbeck had witnessed and lived through the Great Depression and the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s that displaced thousands of migrant farmers, a Holocaust that killed some 11 million people amidst the rise of totalitarian regimes amidst World War II that ended with two atomic blasts that killed 200,000 people. And still Steinbeck hoped, imagined, and wrote as his genius form of activism.
This speech in that context shifts my perspective when the world grows dark, and despair, deep. If not perfectibility, then at least betterment. Without faith in humanity, there is not faith in any of our ability to get better – at what we do, in our character, and together in improving parts of our world.
If you’re alive to this world with a pulse, something likely aches in you, a yearning of sorts, to make something better. In that yearning imagination calls.
Whenever I wonder what’s next for me, our family, or Tracking Wonder, I call upon my imagination. These imaginings actually inform and enrich how we develop quarterly objectives and key results and measurables. If I bring to the future only my analytical faculties, I have deprived my mind, business, and leadership from a whole other realm of possibilities. I have deprived the people I serve and elevate of those possibilities, too
Sometimes I leave the desk and screens behind, and then find a horizon spot to sit outdoors that looks out toward a horizon. Something in a vista draws our deepest yearnings toward the foreseeable and better future. You can do so, too.
- Ask yourself questions about what’s next.
- Entertain what your 9-year-old young genius self would do.
- Try to see the future from other people’s point of view – the people you care about and love, the people you elevate and serve.
- Write one-page stories about imagined futures, personal and public.
- Discuss your emergent ideas with one or two team members.
Why the imagination among leaders?
Your imagination is the part of your mind that can birth a better future – yours and others’. Whether you’re planning a family vacation or making your 3-year business plan, you engage your imagination. The late Sir Ken Robinson – whose talk on creativity remains the most watched TED Talk – defined creativity as “imagination applied.” The human imagination not only gives rise to the innovations that shape your life, work, and the products and objects that inhabit your office and home.
The imagination also spurs us to dream new and better ways to live, relate, govern, lead, work, and create. Imagination can expand our concerns beyond our self-interest.
The imagination humbles us to sacrifice for better futures for strangers and generations of people whom we’ll never know. To tap your civic imagination, there’s something else essential you can do.
There’s a reason some of the most effective leaders read fiction – not just leadership biographies. One year at the Edinburgh Book Festival crime novelist Val McDermind claimed that the leaders who most effectively have handled the COVID-19 pandemic read fiction (as reported in The Guardian). What’s the connection?
“What fiction gives you is the gift of imagination and the gift of empathy,” she said. “You see a life outside your own bubble. If you’re sitting there reading your endless biographies of Churchill or Attlee or whatever, you’re not looking at the world outside your window. You’re not understanding the lives of ordinary people who populate the country you’re supposed to be governing. My advice to any politician is: go and read a novel and you’ll understand the world better and you can imagine a changed world better.”
Reading a novel can disrupt our personal bubble. In my book TRACKING WONDER, I review recent scientific studies on the effects of reading fiction. For instance, doctors who that read short ltierary fiction are more proned to keep an open mind before coming to a readymade prognosis in the face of complexity.
Emily Anhalt, professor at Sarah Lawrence, wrote for The Conversation that “Centuries ago, myths helped the Greeks learn to reject tyrannical authority and identify the qualities of good leadership.” Reading The Odyssey reminds today’s leaders how to lead on principle not base power.
You could start with short stories by George Saunders, Maile Meloy, Lorrie Moore, or Haruki Murakami. You could move onto novels by Marilynne Robinson, Isabel Allende, Celest Ng, or Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance.
There are so many worlds to be imagined, made, and lived into beyond the insulated chambers of news and to-do’s.
In The Republic of Imagination (2014), Azar Nafizi goes further in suggesting that imaginative knowledge informs how we each make decisions in society and how we view the world.
If I have an emaciated imagination and if only one principal player is on the stage of my world (me), I likely will make decisions mostly for my self-interest. If my imagination holds room for a veritable stage of characters – comic and tragic – with varied needs, then maybe I will be more likely to make more decisions for the greater good.
This week, sit with your imagination as a step to make what’s possible happen.
Drop me a comment. I try to reply to everyone.
Be well, and thanks for running with me,