Imagination as Essential Work
"Imagination as Essential Work." Humanities as a Resource and Inspiration for Humanizing Business. Ed. Michael Thate and László Zsolnai. Springer, 2023. Inclusive page numbers no pp or such. 149-173
“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.” (Oliver, 2019).

There’s a beautifully choreographed sequence towards the beginning of the movie, Brazil, where the camera ushers us through a busy office of men shuffling papers. Hundreds of documents pass through hands and overflow carts and bins. The shot lands on M. Kurttzmann, the rigid manager who stands in authority on the balcony overseeing his theater of efficiency. We have just witnessed a scene of moving parts, 150 cogs in an economic machine bound by the time dictated on Kurttzmann’s pocket watch. This parody is our exemplar of business, a hierarchical, standardized exchange of parts born of the industrial revolution. While myopic, the implicit mes­sage about modern business is, “Just play the game and you’ll get a lot more out of life.” (Gilliam, 1985).
It’s no surprise then, what I remember most about my first job was that I never wanted it. Business was so inessential in the idealism of my sixteen-year-old fanta­sist self that my father insisted on marching me to our local grocery store for a job. My reluctance necessitated his waiting like a sentry in the parking lot while I filled out the application. Until then I thrived in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood. A space, as Mary Oliver (2019) puts it, which is neither a child nor a servant of the hours. And until that day, it was a space with few bounds. My time outside of the demands of school was immersed in a place of wonder, in fantastical worlds built along the creek bed near our home or at the top of the old pine tree on the edge of our property. These spaces had soul. They were without time, where the fantastic expanses of the mind soared. These were spaces of escape from adults and the trappings of the child I was supposed to be. They were spaces of autonomy, agency and imagination. Fantastic creatures lived there. Their purpose was both one of unencumbered friendship and predestined subject matter for countless drawings and stories, all of which I still carry with me to this day.
In retrospect, I realize that the additional beauty of my childhood was that imagi­nation and play were sanctioned by the adult world. As children we were encour­aged to create. Drawing happened with abandon and stories were swapped with my brothers deep under the cover of blanket forts or in the backyard clubhouse. Dark nights were carefree, meant for chasing magical lightning bugs and playing Ghost in the Graveyard until it was time for bed. The wildness we experienced was accept­able because it was part of the fabric of what it meant to be a child. My imagination, just as my body, intellect, and my capacity for language were essential to my humanity. These were things I needed to learn how to use, and how to use well. (Le Guin, 2016) Exploring a boundless imagination was encouraged because the contract of childhood deemed creation and play permissible.
But that contract changes as we move into adulthood. Imagination, which felt vast in the beautiful storm of imagery I was free to explore, began to be referred to by adults as “overactive.” And my reality was “all in my head.” Then, as I grew deeper into years of formal education, the pressure and social theater of school pulled me further out of the liminal space of childhood. Imagination that once felt free became a coping strategy. I turned to art as a way of establishing the unique pleasure of my identity. It was a space for self-inquiry and experimentation and also a way to disconnect from life when it felt too hard. As much as I projected a life built on imagination for my future self, I was told, in order to survive in this world, I could not claim “artist” as my occupation. It was too risky. Too uncertain. “How will you make money?” the adults asked. Retrospect also reveals that the implicit freedom of the artist elicits discomfort. It pokes under our careful armor, the tenu­ously designed standard of what it means to be an adult, and reveals a scarcity of 151 real liberation. People’s conventional structure is often a façade. Under the most rigid conventionality there is often a human being with original thoughts or inven­tive fantasy, which they do not dare expose for fear of ridicule. What we don’t real­ize is that the artist is willing to do this for us. They are the guides and map makers to greater sincerity. They keep before our eyes the variations which make human beings so interesting. (Nin, 1974) Instead, we hold the idea of an artist as a dissident of order. We keep them at a distance, see them as novel, otherwise we risk laying bare fragile minds and souls so overlaid with fear and artificiality that their capacity to recognize beauty is slowly asphyxiating.
Our world gives little opportunity to people for casting off this fear and living naturally. When they do, others condemn them. It is only if a person is great enough to outlive our condemnation that we accept them. (Henri, 1923) Fear of our inner wilds and the wildness in others generates a powerful need for control and a barrier of tools, mechanisms and measurement to place between ourselves and the uncon­scious world. We use this as armor to fortify us from the grip of the frightening and perilous aspects of irrational experience.
Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, society has advanced this fear of the unquantifiable, messy parts of life. Many schools are continuing to eliminate art and music programs in the face of heavy standardized testing, which has become the measure of all things (American Academy of Arts and Sciences XE “American Academy of Arts and Sciences”, 2021). And for the last three decades, we’ve seen access to arts education declining (Rabkin & Hedberg, 2011) and an increased focus on subjects measured for test-based accountability (Government Accountability Office, 2009). Forced to forsake their humanity, our young students have become their test scores.
Our business culture is no different. We pay a heavy price for our fear because it is a powerful obstacle to growth. Fear assures the progressive narrowing of the per­sonality and prevents exploration and experimentation. (Gardner, 1964) In order to cope, we keep ourselves so busy and fill our lives with so many diversions that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. Subsequently, by the middle of our lives we are accomplished fugitives from ourselves. (Gardner, 1964).
Despite being run by complex and emotional humans, business is adept at losing touch with humanity. Even before the pandemic’s refocusing on “wellbeing in the workplace” there were well-meaninged (or well-marketed) pushes for “seeing peo­ple, not numbers” or creating “human-centric” organizations. Study after study showed that a commercial organization which focused on people actually increased growth and generated success. The challenge is, with capitalism at the wheel, “human-centric” is an empty promise and the vast wilderness of humanity is still suppressed in the face of economic growth.
Eli Cook reminds us that conditions for economic growth are frequently placed before the necessary conditions for individuals’ well-being. (Cook, 2013) And cites Frederick Winslow Taylor, the efficiency expert who dreamed of measuring every human movement in terms of its cost to employers, as saying, “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” Despite our best intentions, the 152 capitalization of everyday life has placed humanity second and reduced us to gener­alizations. Forced to meet the demands of the economy and the growth of the gross domestic product, we hustle to prove our self-worth by tying it to productivity.
We further separate ourselves from the wilds of our imagination and become a human doing rather than a human being. We have lost sight of the imagination’s rapturous rewards and come to see it as a commodity of what we now call “the cre­ative industry”—something calculable and efficient, useful in maximizing society’s comforts and business’s profits. Much as today’s archetypal Silicon Valley charac­ters are pragmatizing Eastern philosophy and ancient meditation practices as tools for “optimizing” their “performance,” the imagination—that pinnacle of our cogni­tive evolution and seedbed of our core humanity—is being co-opted for purposes that have little to do with animating our sympathies and expanding our hearts. (Le Guin, 2016).
The pop artist, Keith Haring (1996), wrote in his diaries that human experience is one of constant change and, as we label it, “growth.” We build our adult lives around the belief that change does not exist, and with controlled gambits like smart­phone alerts, fitbit trackers and bullet journals we measure and schedule. Haring reveals to us that people don’t want to know that they change, unless they feel it’s an improvement. So to keep change and the uncertainty of our humanity at bay, we add and add to our arsenal of simulated control, ultimately becoming controlled by our system of controls.
This illusion of control is also the bulwark of business. Its’ dangerous nature is to suppress our inner patterns in favor of patterns created by a society addicted to capitalism. Many careers feel stuck in corporate structures that enable bureaucracies of fear. Despite all the talk about informal, agile structures, flat organizations, and purpose, we are still being forced into boxes and expected to be flawless, consistent productivity machines. (Leberecht, 2021) We are still being asked to tuck the messy, uncomfortable, uncertain third self away and exchange it for the empty promise of certainty.
In order to dig out from under the parody of paperwork we witnessed in Kurtzman’s office and escape a metric-driven life—in order to reclaim our human­ity in the face of business—we need to conquer the great wilderness of ourselves. (Baldwin, 1962) We must reacquaint ourselves with the fantastic third self, and artistic revolt, innovation, experiment are the only things that have the power to rescue us from death in life, from robot life, from boredom, from loss of the self. (Nin, 1974) Instead of continuing to use imagination as a way to cope with this life, perhaps we, the agents of business, should learn from the artists, our agents of imagination.
The imagination I speak of is not something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Fantasy is not just for children. And literacy is not meant only for read­ing operating instructions. (Le Guin, 2016) The imagination of which I refer is the mettle of the artist and the essential matter of our creative-thinking human lives. All human life has the power to be suffused and transformed by this wild space. It is a space that welcomes pleasure, purpose and self-knowledge. It has the incredible power to revive our humanity.

Our imagination, as Nick Sousanis (2015) shares in Unflattening, offers a differ­ent vantage point from which to set off on a new journey. By putting our faith in imagination and passing through these infinite thresholds, we create the possibility of becoming something different, something limitless and wild. When we step into the dark wood, our attitude toward the life we just stepped out of has wholly changed. Intricacies untangle. We see people and challenges in new ways. Something has happened; the spirit of the wood has possessed us. We have gotten into rhythm, into a flow, and are no longer on our usual plane of life. (Henri, 1923) We are armed with multiple ways of seeing, where we gain access to multidimensional sight, where existing barriers tumble and creative possibilities flourish. (Sousanis, 2015).
The beauty of art—contemplating or creating—is that it has the power to lead us to the dark wood of our imagination. And facing that dark wood is a vital act of fac­ing oneself. It is a leaning into the potential for change that exists between an illu­sion of control and the truth of chaos. This threshold is what compels my own work as an artist. Committing to a sculpture is an opening to the unknown and also an opening to failure and immense delight. Each wrapping of fiber around matter or mark on paper is peeling back decades of self-constructed armor and exposing a truthful experience of reality. Art, which leads us to our imaginative selves, is an irrepressible outpouring of what is already inside. (Kusama, 2011) It is stepping into a larger flow of meaning, a conversation with oneself and with something larger. This is a powerful space, a space of deep inquiry and wisdom, which holds the potential of eternity. The wood is a gateway to liberation. Mary Wollstonecraft calls it “the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering [people] social by expand­ing their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.” (Wollstonecraft & Todd, 2003). Art liberates the soul and cele­brates humanity instead of manipulating it. (Haring, 1996).
Artists are the exemplars of these magical journeys because they dare to risk that vulnerable space and have the capacity to connect to and apply the resulting wis­dom. Painting opens to the inner dance of the painter’s mind a larger door to the outside. (Dubuffet, 1951). Every mark, every pressing of clay or creation of code is a revelation of freedom. The freedom of the artist is symbolic of the human spirit in all mankind and there is something to be learned from this embrace. (Haring, 1996) This journey into the dark wood is a trait which all people have and which ulti­mately connects us to humankind. Art’s secondary power is one of generating empathy, the ability to engage with our complex social fabric and cross social, par­tisan and temporal gaps to foster a shared sense of understanding. (Blanchett, 2020).
Empathy, generated by the beauty and chaos of imagination, is lost in the face of modern business. The act of stepping into the dark wood is the opposite of the call of business but does have the power to transform it. As designed by the post-industrial revolution, business is driven by the demands of the gross domestic prod­uct, which measures through generalization and converts people to numbers. Our modern conundrum is that business, which erases our humanity, is driven by humans who are required to think creatively, to have ideas. And to have ideas one must have imagination. As we learned growing into the adult world, imagination is 170 unquantifiable, uncertain and something to be feared. But the beauty of our imagi­nation is that it ultimately holds the power to reach the inner meaning of things. Just as the little hole in the peach reveals the existence of the worm, the imagination is the key to lay bare our mystery and give us a language that expresses sensations too subtle for words. (Henri, 1923).
By its very nature, art breaks from the restraints of social regulation and expands the soul. In this space, meaning and connection is formed. Like a child, the third self, who is out of love with the ordinary and unbound from time, is empowered to run free. (Oliver, 2019) Also like a child, the artist teaches the world the idea of life. (Henri, 1923) Composing music, writing a poem, even circuit bending can be pro­foundly human. Chaos, uncertainty and disorder are as well. They are unquantifi­able and messy and the stuff of childhood. We think we have all of the tools and knowledge to corral life’s variability but this is simply self-subterfuge. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge. (Baldwin, 1962) They remind us that we must open up to a world which is complex and unpredictable because our human truth lies in the disorder.
So how do we, humans in the adult world of business, free ourselves from the bonds of the time clock, the tyranny of metrics and our addiction to control? How do we shift our model of business success from one measured by capital growth to one qualified by a growing imagination? What if our worth was not tied to how much we produce but instead was tied to the expansiveness of our creativity?
Ursula K. Le Guin (2016) alludes to what I imagine a chorus of business voices might be saying at this moment in the essay, “‘Yes, yes!’ The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!’” The perceived value is directly correlated to the dollar and how creative thinking, knowledge work, makes business profitable. In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (Le Guin, 2016) When creativity or imagination is bound to monetary success then it becomes like any other commodity. Le Guin shares further that our imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human. (Le Guin, 2016).
One can cite studies here like Root-Bernstein who found that scientists versed in the arts possess a distinct advantage in making discoveries, connections, and look­ing at problems in expansive ways. (Sousanis, 2015) But perhaps the more impor­tant directive in the final act of this essay needs to impel business itself to the dark wood with the hope of shifting its definition of success.
French physiologist Claude Bernard (1957) said, “Those who do not know the torment of the unknown cannot have the joy of discovery.” However feared or mis­understood, artists hold the key to this unknown space. They are our guides in befriending uncertainty and uncovering the emotional profit of their intimate dis­coveries. While it may seem like a leap of faith to see the value of our work lives as embracing moments when we see beyond the usual and become clairvoyant, these are moments of our greatest happiness and moments of our greatest wisdom. (Henri, 1923) This “feeling of creation” for which artist Faith Ringgold (2021) “would have 171 suffered almost anything” is the very essential quality in all of us. Certainly, expand­ing into the imagination opens us to more expansive problem solving, and countless business books extol the virtues of creative thinking and the ultimate financial bounty of innovation. There is no need to make an additional case here for what has already been embraced and capitalized on by business. What I am proposing is a dismantling of the familiar measurement of business success.
Deep down in our bodies we realize the sign of great inner insecurity is to be hostile to the unfamiliar. (Nin, 1974) Business at its best runs on the familiar, what it knows to be predictable and certain. The unfamiliar stems from our humanity and our unusual power of thinking. We are alive in this deeper evolution on which all growth depends. (Henri, 1923) The role of the imagination is to create new mean­ings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection. Imagination begins with intuition, not intellect.” (Rand, 1996) It is mostly an acci­dental dance between collected memory and influence, a construction that awaits spiritual ignition. (Cave, 2022) So in order to truly live—in order for us to be alive and human at work—we must embrace the unfamiliar. Business must as well. We must trust that which ignites our spirit and inspires us to forge ahead into the dark­ness. Imagination holds the key to exceed our inevitably limited point of view to find perspectives not in existence or dimensions not yet accessible. (Sousanis, 2015) And not measurable.
Art making has no measurement. There is only connection. Connection to our own humanity, connection to the deep well of our imagination and connection to a beautiful kind of disorder. It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it. (Henri, 1923) If cre­ation exists in every human, whether it’s choreographing a dance, plumbing a house, building a business or building a team, why not embrace the rarity of oneself in the process? How could this change the paradigm of business success? What would your life have to gain if you embraced this wild self at work? The wild self, out of love with the ordinary and hungering for eternity, is the art maker in all of us. In some this vital spirit burns fiercely and in others it is a dim flicker, but it lives in all of us, and can be made stronger through daily devotion to the work at hand. (Cave, 2022) Art leads us to imagination. Imagination leads to creation. Creation reveals our human connection. And this is the kind of success that creates growth in life.
In life, even in business life, perfection is a careful pretense. Art is imperfect and defies measurement. In my experience, there is never really a definitive end-point for the work of making art, so success is not a finish line. It is not quantifiable. Success instead is a beginning, a new path, a continuation of growth. Success is embracing the risk of moving forward down an uncharted path. It is looking back at the journey, seeing what you’ve accomplished and then forging ahead. At the end of the day, prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in life. (Jackson, 2009) The end will be what it will be. The object 172 is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation. (Henri, 1923) The mak­ing of art becomes a vehicle for ideas and feelings that are explored on an uncon­scious level during the creation. Crafting helps to bring feeling into a deeper and more universal realm. Our imagination opens us to seeing people and challenges in new ways as well as the extraordinary bits of life, which ultimately leads to connec­tion and empathy. This is human-centric.
The pandemic has reminded us that the world is uncertain. We can no longer shore up blinders to chaos. When we bank success on certainty, life and business will ultimately fail us. When financial profit is the outcome of a human-centric workplace the promise is exposed for its real emptiness. Our age of uncertainty is reminding us to take stock in our lives, shift our values and reach for that which transcends the empty promise of capitalism. A shared sense of meaning is important in our brave new world of social distancing and self-isolation. Communication and comprehension are as critical to the delicate social fabric that holds us together as facts and research are to scientific investigation and advancement. And art, in turn, is a social investigation, with the results contributing to the advancement of society. It is one of the key ways we work out, as a group, what makes sense to us. (Blanchett, 2020) Consequently, we’ll be wanting the voices of artists who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive tech­nologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need artists, realists of a larger reality, who can remember freedom. (Le Guin, 2016) And we’ll need artists to illuminate the darkness so that the world will not, in all its doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is to make a more human dwelling place. (Baldwin, 1962) Because, as Haring reminds us, art is magic and magic must always triumph. (Haring, 1996).

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