Our Lame Imaginations

clip_image002The night before I started writing this, I Sound HoundedKind and Generous” as it was playing in my favorite bar. I didn’t need the information, I am a Natalie Merchant fan, but I wanted to see how much things had really changed in 18 years. Back in the mid-90’s, I asked my administrative assistant who was singing the song that was playing on her radio. My assistant was young, hadn’t worked very long for me, and apparently felt that I have given her a direct order. She called the radio station in a mild panic, telling them “my boss needs to know who was singing in that last song…” The answer was Natalie Merchant, and the song, “These Are Days” from MTV Unplugged is still one of my favorites. Who knew that in less than 20 years, I would be able to point my phone toward the speakers and get all that information delivered wirelessly?

This isn’t one of those “back in my day” kind of posts. This is more a lament about the lack of, and suppression of imagination. I chose the example above to lead into this post, because I wonder if I would have that option on my phone if it hadn’t been for Steve Jobs. I wonder how long it would have taken for the plodding stream of product development in other companies to bring us to this point, if Apple hadn’t raised the bar by an order of magnitude. Businesses like the modern day Microsoft seem to look at product lines like a bus route. Maybe they have an idea where all the stops are, but they aren’t in any hurry to get to them. Artists and scientists tend to think more in terms of the bus jumping a 50’ gap in the freeway like the one driven/piloted by Sandra Bullock in the movie Speed.

John Mancini, President of AIIM, wrote a really good piece on The Future of Work, in which he ponders a number of very valid questions about the disconnect between business and anything close to the leading edge of technology. I worry more about the question raised in one of the comments, the fact that we are witnessing a dramatic shortage of software developers to take advantage of this technology. I think that part of the problem is the lack of imagination among parents and the suppression of imagination in children. If you’re looking for the data behind that claim, you can stop reading, the best I have is anecdotal evidence collected, well, by me. I have plenty of stories, but I’ll offer just one:

When my daughter was very young, we let her join a play-group after church service. It was a nice group, run by sweet well-intentioned women, but Faith didn’t like it. It seems when they were allowed to take a toy, Faith took the “stacking cups” and began to play with them as she did at home, where they were among her favorite toys. The woman in charge admonished her for “doing it wrong” – the cups were meant to be stacked or nested, nothing else. Faith knew how they worked, but would often stack those cups in inelegant ways, hide things under them or use them for support structures with blocks and other “building” toys. Years later, she dug them out of a toy box to use as trestle supports for her Lego Train.

We didn’t object to Faith breaking the rules because the rules seemed stupid. My parents had never been strict enforcers of the rules of play, whether I was using Army Men on a chess board, randomly assembling Erector Set components or using Chick Peas as ammo in my slingshot. My father seemed to enjoy it when we would think beyond the obvious, except when it came to tools; he was rather anal about the proper use of tools. I remember though that he encouraged us to read, frequently reminding us that “if you can read, you can do anything.” I remember when I asked him if I could take a computer programming course in summer school between 8th and 9th grade. It wasn’t going to be an easy thing to coordinate, but he said “it looks like computers will be important in your lifetime” and he made the arrangements. That was 1967, and I have worked with computers ever since. I was amazed that I could dial-into a computer at the University of Pittsburgh from our Junior High School. I couldn’t imagine then that one day I would be sitting in my family room with a more powerful computer on my lap, but I actually think my father could imagine that. He was a mailman, and he would tell people who would ask me if I wanted to be a mailman, that he didn’t think that people would still be walking/driving around delivering mail in the future.

As technology becomes more advanced and as science unlocks more mysteries, it becomes more important for parents to help keep their children’s minds open to endless possibilities. Parents need to demand more challenging activities in public schools, not just for the high school kids on the FIRST team, but for every child, as early as kindergarten. Stop checking off the boxes on the bucket list of today’s college application. Let your kids explore, experiment and play and prepare for the tomorrow that you can’t imagine is coming.


  1. Hi Dan. I don’t think that my Dad or Mum ever told me how to play. In a different country but I played with plasticine, meccano, Bayko building kits eic. all on this old blackboard that spread across the arms of a chair. Likewise with my children – no instruction – just opportunity. Now I have two nursery teachers – Montessori – one software engineer who took his company way away from their original plan, just by showing them something different – oh and one lawyer – you can’t win them all – grin.


  2. Thanks David, and all grinning aside, I know you’re proud of that lawyer too. I’m not surprised by your track record, as I have had the pleasure of watching you explore different things for a number of years.

    By the way, if anyone wants to see some of the ways David is still playing, He also has a modeling blog, a model railroading blog and one for other activities. I am following closely his latest kit, see why: http://gentlescalemodelling.blogspot.com/

    You’re never too old to play.


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