One’s treasure can be another’s trash
Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."
Some time ago, I was watching an episode of History Channel’s American Pickers, where the pickers, Mike and Frank, were at a home in California. There was an incredible amount of junk strewn over the property. As I watched them climb through it, I noticed a tiny little sign nailed to a tree that said, “Trash is a lack of imagination.”
That statement stuck with me. I’m sure it was meant to reference the growing repurposing industry where creative people take one’s junk and turn it into something new and unique. However, it got me thinking about origins, and how we have a tendency to give little thought to something once it has been “destined” for its future purpose. This applies to everything, whether it’s a tangible object or something as simple as an idea.
For example, I wrote a book about creative thinking published by Prentice-Hall that went out of print in early 2002. Pearson, the parent company of Prentice-Hall, has a policy that states: “Pearson does not issue royalty checks if the amount due is under $25.00. Earnings under $25.00 will be carried forward to the next royalty statement.” I’m sure the intent was to minimize costs associated with issuing checks for small amounts, and it probably made perfect sense at the time the policy was put in place.
Since the book no longer generates royalties, I’ve been receiving the same monthly statement for over 13 years detailing how Pearson owes me 52¢. The statement consists of four sheets of multi-colored paper in a 9 x 12 inch envelope, which costs $1.19 in postage. Based on all of the costs involved, including the labor to stuff the envelope and mail it, I estimate they’ve spent approximately $600 to date telling me this. Unless someone within Pearson chooses to reimagine the current policy and create a new idea going forward, I estimate they will spend another $2500 (accounting for inflation) over the next 30 years telling me the same thing. Odds are I’m not the only author receiving statements like this.
In Imagine! (ironically, the book I just discussed), I wrote that imagination consists of two-part thinking: the ability to see an idea in the abstract and then be able to elaborate on the idea going forward. It’s the ability to visualize an idea in the mind before it becomes “real,” followed by the ability to visualize the effects and outcomes of the idea after it’s implemented.
Imagination should never be a one-time process. Like with many tangible objects that end up in junkyards because they’ve “played out” their purpose, a great many intangible ideas solidified into plans, policies, procedures, instructions, guidelines, rules, and a litany of other “ways of doing” continue on into the future, with little imagination or consideration as to how they fit into changing contexts and environments.
At least on its surface, one would think it is fairly painless to consistently reimagine the “why?” behind the “what” each and every day. I believe that most people like the concept of change primarily because it makes us feel as if we have power or control over our life situations. But despite this “power to change,” we tend to continue behaving just as we always have because it’s hard to say goodbye to well-established patterns and habits. Combined with the overwhelming amount of daily minutia we all deal with thanks to technology, it’s easy to see how we might simply revert to our comfort zones and fail to take the time to reimagine anything that’s already in place.
The danger of failing to periodically reimagine an idea can range from a simple future inconvenience, to spending thousands of dollars to inform someone that you owe them 52¢, to something much worse. Imagination is a process that should be done daily––not in one day.
Practice Challenge: When was the last time you thought about the “why?” behind the “what,” either in your own personal life or in the organization where you work? Taking a look at how you spend your time is a good place to start; our biggest time-eaters tend to be ideas that were once good and have now grown stale. Try to reimagine those ideas and allow yourself the time to mentally elaborate on their ultimate outcomes.
©2014 Anthony D. Paustian