Imagination First


Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, Imagination First: How to Unlock the Power of Possibility (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). $24.95, 240 pages.

Imagination First is two books in one. The first is a field manual of practices that will stimulate imagination. The second is an argument about how imagination will change the world. I found the first to be both insightful and helpful; I found the second to be an exercise in swishy thinking.

As a field manual of imaginogenic practices—I just used my imagination to create that word!—Imagination First succeeds admirably. Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon have surveyed the literature, both academic and practical, and come up with excellent suggestions for how to routinize the process of imagination, both individually and corporately.

Liu and Nappe-Brandon define imagination as “the capacity to conceive of what is not.” Human beings are hardwired both to perceive what is and to conceive of what if. Over time, however, our capacity to perceive reality overtakes our capacity to create new realities. The 28.5 practices the authors outline in this book help keep imagination alive and kicking. My personal list of favorites includes:

  • Make greedy, grateful use of limits
  • Change the metaphors that frame your reality
  • Talk about your work with someone who doesn’t understand it
  • Make the ending open-ended
  • Trade sharp focus for full-field awareness
  • Regularly rinse out expectations
  • Find better problems
  • Never say no to an idea
  • Treat failure like a skill

I am a pastor. Borrowing a turn of phrase from St. Paul, part of my job is to help people take off the clothes of their old selves and put on the clothes of their new selves in Christ. It is a ministry that requires grace-filled imagination, of seeing the wonderful life that could be rather than just the miserable life that is. As I chewed on Liu and Nappe-Brandon’s list of practices, I savored the ways each one could help me do my job more effectively. Indeed, I tasted some ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that would help my life become what—God-willing—it could be.

I won’t detail those ways in this review. That might block your own imaginative appropriation of this book’s advice!

But I was also troubled as I read the book by what I perceived to be its swishy thinking. I got the impression that Liu and Nappe-Brandon thinking the basic problems facing the world are failures of imagination. They write: “If we want to contemplate—let alone generate—a vastly different set of headlines [than the depressing ones we read today], we have to rekindle a youthful naivete, a willful bewilderment about all the insanity and inadequacy that we come to tolerate, and a child’s habit of letting thought experiments run wild.”

Perhaps. Then again, perhaps the lack of peace in the Middle East, or the death of millions of children due to entirely preventable diseases, or the corruption of politics by special interests—all examples the authors cite—have deeper causes than lack of imagination. Indeed, in each case, the solution is at hand: land for peace, NGOs providing medicine at low or no cost to patients, campaign fundraising reform. The problem is not that solutions haven’t been imagined, but that those imagined solutions won’t be applied. The problem is not epistemological (a lack of information) but moral (a lack of will).

So, two books in one: Read the first; be careful with the second.

P.S. If you found this book review helpful, please vote Yes here.

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