At the close of twentieth century, Time magazine named Albert Einstein “the man of the century”. Even today he is depicted as the epitome of intelligence. What was the secret of Einstein’s genius? How did a clerk employed in a patent office overthrow the entire realm of classical physics?
The most common perception about Einstein’s genius is that he was gifted with an extraordinary brain. People have even studied his brain for comparison. However, the genius himself has answered the question:
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
Once when he was five years old, Albert got sick. In order to cheer the sick child, his father brought him a compass as a gift. Little Albert was amazed at how the compass’s needle always turned towards north no matter how he would hold it. He spent a long time contemplating the invisible force that moved the needle. That was probably his first leap of scientific thought, however this unique imagination remained with Einstein for the rest of his life.
Unlike Newton and many other scientists that came before him, Einstein did not conduct any real experiments. Rather, his experiments were “thought experiments”— involving visualization of imaginary scenarios and deducing results. Thus the patent clerk staring out of the office window was not just staring in void—he was imagining the unimagined. He was envisioning what would it be like riding on a beam of light. That was Einstein’s genius, his ability to imagine the unimagined.
You may or may not be able to imagine intricate subjects like Einstein, but the following seven lessons should help you boost your imaginative skills.
Lesson One: Start Thinking in Images
Do we think in words or images? The answer to this question is that we do a bit of both. This topic is being researched over the past few decades, and there are various schools of thought. However, as far as boosting your imaginative abilities are concerned, thinking through images can be a great help. That ability was a great help to Einstein, and it can help you too.
Lesson Two: Jot It Down
One of my ex-colleagues was in the habit of notes taking. Not only did he jot down every important action point, but he literally discussed in writing often drawing images to describe his point. Everyone agreed that his observation was remarkable. More on observation in the next lesson, but being a great observer is a great bonus for constructing images in your head, and hence boosting your ability to imagine.
Lesson Three: Be a Thorough Observer
We learn a lot through observation. How do we make observations? Through our five senses; we see, we hear, we taste, we smell, and we touch. Everything we experience through our senses forms our observation. Some people are keen observers compared to others. In most cases, having good observation is a useful skill which enhances your knowledge base.
Other than knowledge, good observation can improve your imaginative skills as well. For example, you can improve your imaginative ability by practicing the following exercise. Pick an object and observe its shape, color, size, feel etc. Now put the object aside and close your eyes and try to imagine the object. Repeating the exercise should help you improve your imaginative skills.
Lesson Four: Look for Patterns
Nature is full of patterns. From honeycombs to sinuous snake meanders, you can find patterns around you. But it takes a good pair of eyes and skilful observation to notice the symmetries of nature. Patterns are often taught in schools to solve mathematical problems. Those are good exercises for anyone who wants to improve their imaginative skills.
Lesson Five: Be Inquisitive
“You ask too many questions”. If you have heard that remark often from your teachers, congratulations! you share at least one trait with Albert Einstein; you are inquisitive. Once when Einstein was asked about the secret of his success, the great scientist replied,
” All I have done is ask a few questions.”
That seems a humble reply from a great mind. But asking questions is just the beginning. Once you ask a question, it takes a lot of imaginative work is finding a convincing answer. An example is Einstein’s question, “What would happen if I could travel on a beam of light?” It took him ten years to resolve the mystery completely — ten years of imagination, ten years of mistaken ideas and self-corrections.
Lesson Six: Challenge Your Biases
Whether you accept or not, all of us are biased. We are biased in our thoughts and conversations, especially when they are in the realm of religion and politics. Most of us are blinded by our faiths and affiliations. These biases creep into our minds as we think through ideas and can restrain our ability to imagine. In order to be more imaginative with your thoughts, start challenging your preconceptions and biases.
Lesson Seven: Don’t Hesitate to Hesitate
If you read through Einstein’s letters where he talks about his new scientific ideas, at times they start with “I think” or “It seems to me” or “It appears to me”. All of these phrases point towards the hesitation with which a new idea is proposed. An imaginative person hesitates. As he is still going through the process of refining the idea in his mind. Hesitation breeds further imagination; it’s okay to hesitate.