“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked my son. My parents and teachers asked me this same question from when I was his age until the day I graduated from university and began my first career. I can’t really recall what I answered. Maybe it was a fireman, maybe a doctor, an ad man was on the list. I’m not sure if the answers were ever really important.
Actualizing the answers wasn’t that important either. I am fairly happy I’m not a fireman or a doctor even though I respect and admire those professions. The question of what you would like to be is the cornerstone in forming the foundation for self-efficacy. More importantly, that question taps into your imagination, and imagination is where dreams and possibilities form.
My son’s dream profession changes every time I ask him. He wants to be an astronaut one day, but it could be Spiderman the next. Sometimes it could be more fanciful, like a fish, a firetruck or something as simple as a color. I never ridicule him, even when I’m tempted. I think to myself, “A firetruck! You can’t be a firetruck? You’re a person and a person can never be a firetruck. Don’t be silly.” I always catch myself, though.
What gives me the right to destroy his imaginings? He can see the world differently. Wanting to be a firetruck when he grows up has a meaning to him. Maybe he sees a firetruck as a solution to help cope with some unarticulated fear. Maybe he sees it as wanting to help, but not understanding how. Maybe he wants to be noticed by making a lot of noise. In the end, it’s his imagination. His imagination helps him process the world around him. How many times have brilliant ideas been squashed by those unwilling to listen, understand and ask?
The importance of imagination
I like to think I’m an advocate for the importance of imagination. I steadfastly believe it helps us escape into a very unique environment where solutions are born and futures are made. I sometimes imagine there once was a kid who loved the storylines and gadgets in Star Trek so much he helped come up with videoconferencing.
I can see that kid watching that boxy TV, tweaking the antennas to see Captain Kirk negotiate with the Vulcans or Klingons, and – hey presto! – years later he created videoconferencing. Now we negotiate with the French and Germans on a daily basis all because one kid turned someone’s imagination into reality later in his working life.
Lately, I have been curious about my student’s imaginations. I tend to ask, “What would you like to do to change the world?” It’s a bewildering question for a lot of them at first. Inevitably, a lot of their eyes seem to ignite. There is almost always a flash of excitement, but sadly there will be a gradual decline into that pitiful hole of, “yeah, but …” followed by a list of real or perceived obstacles and concluding with excuses, guilt and blame. It used to be a depressing spectacle.
Now, I force students to follow their explanations with questions for others, and like a bonfire, hope, ideas and solutions are exchanged. The act of questioning creates inclusion, engagement and excitement. Ideas can be ridiculous and absurd, but questions make it a shared experience. More often than not, laughter removes critical judgments. Self-doubt disappears and is replaced with an exuberant fervor filled with potential. The stale, stagnant environment is quickly replaced by something electrified and contagiously thrilling – all simply by following an explanation with a question.
Sharing your ideas and other fruits of the imagination
I sometimes wonder what I would say if my son asked me what I would like to be when I grow up after he answers the same question. I imagine I would tell him something slightly silly. He would undoubtedly ask me why. There would be a rapid back and forth, with questions and explanations followed by more questions and copious amounts of laughter and unrestrained, jovial, excitement. There will be annoying squealing mixed with a fair share of giggling too.
A collaborative back and forth story will be generated filled with absurdity, and non-linear thoughts. There would be some contemplation on the more difficult concepts, but most importantly there would be a shared understanding of the enjoyment of working together. Preposterous solutions could be generated to equally outlandish problems. Maybe one day my son will embark on a career as a scientist and invent a particle transporter that can make a juice box materialize in his hand or a self-replenishing box of Cheerios.
Maybe we can do the same in our own working environments. Maybe we all just want to have a part in someone's imagination, and maybe we want to include others in our own imagination, too. After all, sharing is caring. That sharing is just another example of getting your message through.