Should We See Imagination as Hard Work?

(Nick’s Notes: This is the third part of my four part series on Isaac Morehouse’s ideas on work from his blog, you can find part one here and part two here)

Spongebob’s got the right idea!

Isaac has a podcast episode on whether we should think of imagination as work. Now, it seems pretty clear at first glance that I’d have some problems with this. After all, imagination isn’t really something we see as hard.

Sure, people who imagine a lot may be seen as very creative but they’re hardly seen as engaging in something this is consequential. It’s similar to many people’s feelings on play. Play as an activity for both children and especially adults is seen as some sort of complimentary thing to our lives that hold no real consequential content by themselves.

Likewise, imagination is nice and it’s good to have but it’s (again, like play) emphasized more for kids than for adults. If you stare off too much as an adult people might think there’s something possibly wrong with you. Or, if you’re doing it in public people might take offense (not that that has ever happened to me…) because they think you’re staring at them when really you’re just staring.

Seeing imagination as a form of discipline or work seems contrary to how our culture typically sees imagination but really it’s not all bad.

For better or worse, people associate “hard work” with meaningful activity. So that if you work for a long time on a given thing then that thing must have some sort of value. Whereas if you just worked on something for a few minutes it probably isn’t as valuable.

Speaking from personal experience I have trouble relating to this, particularly as a writer. Sometimes I’ll write a poem in under ten minutes and get a lot of emotional catharsis out of it. While a feature article that I’ve been working on for a week or so might give me some sense of pride. But even then it’s not always as much as the emotional catharsis from the poetry was.

Of course, it depends on what feature vs. what poem. This isn’t always true but it does happen every now and then, especially if I’m not so satisfied with how much time it took me to do the feature as opposed to the poem.

One of Isaac’s main points is that imagination isn’t easy but that doesn’t mean we need to have it as some sort of discipline.

Right now, I’m writing a story about an alcoholic who ends up in an abandoned brewery. Now, not having drank ever or been in a distillery I need a lot of imagination for how to write this character. Luckily, I have written the character so that basically he gets like me when I am depressed: lethargic, low-energy and overly-reflective.

So that was one way to get around my lack of experience. I’ve also thought to ask friends of mine how they act or feel when they get drunk. It has also helped me to look up some notable abandoned breweries and get some kind of idea about what these places sometimes look like before and after.

Those things have helped me and I have tried hard to use my imagination. But I don’t necessarily see it as a “discipline” because for me, imagination is too much of a creative and unstable element to be boxed into disciplines. Disciplines often involved physical materials or actions that can be easily replicated and performed with little variety. But mental processes like imagination don’t seem to fit neatly within that model.

I agree with Isaac however, that kids need more space to imagine. And the same goes for playing too!

I wish schools (besides being abolished) were more amiable to the wandering kid who wants to think about the world around him. People accuse such children (or adults!) of “being in their own little world”. But what’s so wrong with that? As someone with aspergers I need my own little world to deal with the much larger world outside me. Reflecting on myself helps me do that sometimes and I don’t think it’s necessary or fair to bar that from occurring.

And even if you’re not autistic there’s still plenty to be engaged in by creatively interacting with possibilities. The situations Isaac raises about “what would you do if X huge thing happened?” are interesting and things I’ve given some thought. But they aren’t processes per se’ or very hard-wired into me or something. I usually rely on first instincts and what makes sense from there.

For example, if I had a million dollars I would probably:

  • Pay off my student debt (it’s small but annoying)
  • Give some of the money to my Mom
  • Give some of the money to my aunt
  • Give some of the money to friends who really needed it
  • Buy myself a small apartment/studio/tiny home
  • Give a bunch of the money to anarchist organizations I support (like C4SS!)
  • Most likely save 90% of it and live comfortably for the rest of my life in some sort of minimalist (for a billionaire anyways) life

So those are some things I’ve imagined but spending so much time on this possibility when it is so unlikely seems like a waste of time. I would rather be in that hammock that Isaac mentions and lazily think about weird possibilities then spend two hours pacing about it. Plus, I dislike math.

One of the major problems that Isaac has with his argument though is that he treats the mainstream conception of imagination as the fault in the imaginers rather than a misconception of the culture.

What I mean by that is that plenty of people think (as I mentioned earlier) that play has little to no consequences and thus shouldn’t be taken seriously by outside observers or isn’t by the kids themselves. But kids are always taking play seriously. They (ahem) work hard to make sure the games work for everyone involved and sometimes creatively uproot certain rules they don’t work so they can work for themselves. And, ideally, everyone else around them.

There’s plenty of creativity, hard work and discipline to play, ironically. But it’s a very relaxed form of discipline and hard work. One that comes about spontaneously and freely due to the nature of play itself.

Some kids (and adults) definitely get annoyed when you break our concentration from imagining things. But that doesn’t mean we are treating it like hard work. It just seems generally annoying to bother someone who is lost in thought.

Lastly, is it really true that imagination is our only unique thing about ourselves that can’t be outsourced?

There are plenty of things within the mind that can’t seem to be outsourced (yet) in some tangible sense. I’m not sure why imagination is particularly worth mentioning but it is a powerful mental activity to be fair.

But whether this is true or not, Isaac’s point about things at rest not being active is missing the point. Of course if we’re just lazily engaging in our imagination we may or may not get the results we want. But this relies on a whole host of factors, not the least of which is the context we’re in, the situation we’re thinking about, etc. Our mental state itself can also impact how hard we need to think about something too.There’s far too many variables here to be certain about how good “hard work” is within the context of imagination.

Or so I imagine anyways.

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