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."
I recently saw Tomorrowland, a movie loosely based on the Disney attraction that dates back to 1955. There was a scene in the movie that took place at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (a place where Walt Disney featured a number of his new rides and concepts) that got me thinking about the nature of today and what inspires people to expand their minds.
Truly imaginative and creative people were once heralded as the rock stars of their eras. People travelled from great distances to get a glimpse of Edison’s latest invention, the Wright Flyer, one of Tesla’s experiments in electro-magnetism, or one of America’s first astronauts. They visited World’s Fairs (prevalent from 1851-1960s) that were long, two-year events designed to inspire, enlighten, and entertain people from all walks of life. In a single location, a World’s Fair showcased and celebrated the world’s new ideas and innovations. Compare that with our own state fair, where the primary focus seems to be the various types of food one can get “on a stick.”
Today, people seldom travel just to see an idea or new invention, and the luster of the World’s Fair has diminished along with its frequency and attendance. The last fair held in the U.S. was the New Orleans World’s Fair in 1984, more than 30 years ago. Attendance at this fair was less than spectacular––7.3 million compared to the 51.6 million that attended the World’s Fair in New York twenty years earlier.1 While World’s Fairs have declined, a growing emphasis is now placed on the tabloid exploits of celebrities, athletes, and the current winner of the “How Can I Be the Most Bizarre and Obnoxious Award” in both music and reality television.
A short time ago I had the opportunity to converse with Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon during Apollo 17. During the discussion, he talked about the one thing he was most proud of…and it wasn’t having walked on the moon. He was most proud of how he helped to inspire countless young people. Because of his time in the space program, those he inspired went on to accomplish a great many things. However, shortly after expressing his pride in how his efforts had a direct, positive impact on people’s lives, he went on to express his sadness that having gone to the moon no longer inspires young people today. In fact, he sees little else that does, especially in the long-term.
I believe that for a large and growing number of people the words “imagination” and “creativity” are at risk of becoming nothing more than just words. They frequently appear in media, schools, television commercials and presidential campaign speeches, but do they truly inspire someone to action? The Internet is incredible in its ability to make information readily available and often accelerates the rate of new advances. But it has also resulted in people becoming just a little more lazy in their thinking. Why memorize something when you can just look it up?
Imagination and creativity have always been game-changers. They change how people communicate. They change how people travel. They change how homes and businesses operate. They allow people to visit other worlds. They ushered in the atomic age and provide the potential for unlimited energy. They provide food for the growing masses. They add convenience and improve the standard of living for many.
Our society requires more than just words to grow, flourish and lead. It requires direct calls to action that both motivate and drive people to think differently. We are all responsible for creativity and the subsequent innovation that serve as driving forces for our future, both collectively and as individuals. And for those who have come before us, the spirit of their imaginations and creative efforts should be celebrated, and their stories shared again and again to inspire future generations to new creative thought and action.
What inspires you to think creatively and then actually do something with it? How do you help others? In 1955, Walt Disney dedicated Tomorrowland by saying, “A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man’s achievements…A step into the future, with predictions of constructed things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals. The Atomic Age, the challenge of Outer Space and the hope for a peaceful, unified world.”
Tomorrowland needs to become Todayland.
Practice Challenge: When do you feel the most inspired to use your imagination and be creative? Where do you feel it? For me, it’s when I visit the Smithsonian, Kennedy Space Center or the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry. Sometimes, it’s just watching a great documentary about how something was made or done at the IMAX or on History Channel. Wherever it is, try to do that more often. Sometimes, helping and supporting others’ activities may have an even greater impact on developing new ideas. Is there someone you can mentor or support?
1World’s Fair History. Retrieved January 27, 2011, from the EXPO Museum website: https://www.expomuseum.com
©2015 Anthony D. Paustian