Just Imagine.

This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.



By Esha Chhabra

Saturday, August 13, 2011

This week, I’m finding a story that’s much closer to home — a fat, spiral notebook, parked under the desk in our den.

While growing up, I’d never really considered how important it is to be imaginative. It’s a childhood profession, you could say. It comes naturally. Then we hit an age when we’re presented with a scantron of bubble-in options, a template for a CV that we need to create, and Excel.

At that point, our learning has to fit into certain parameters: within that little bubble, within the one page limit, and within a tiny digital graph. So, what happens to our imagination?

It seems to fade.

Being Asian (as I am) doesn’t help. The assumption that you’re more apt for engineering or medicine is like a nagging tail. We have a so-called fondness for numbers, apparently. If you’re Asian, you must be good at math — of course.

Well, then I turned out to be an oddball. I developed an affinity for words and images instead. At age 12, my dream was to be a professional doodler, which could turn into a career as a cartoonist, if it went well. And my parents indulged me in that dream.

Unlike others, who may have thought that was ridiculous, they got me drawing books. When my mother saw me sitting idle, or falling asleep among a pile of school books, she’d suggest, “Why don’t you draw for a bit?” Over a decade later, little has changed. She still chuckles at my drawings, tells me to draw more often and has preserved that notebook.

Perhaps, I should have continued with that path. Last week, a friend sent me an email with a job listing, titled Doodler. Ridiculous, I thought. But then I saw the employer — Google. Not so funny anymore but actually a possibility. And truly, Google is hiring a doodler for the images that often appear on its homepage to celebrate holidays and momentous occasions.

As I grew older, as the reading list of books grew longer, the assignments tougher and jobs took up any spare time as a student in college, that ability to just sit down and pour your imagination onto a blank canvas began to disappear. Rather, that creative side had to reinvent itself.

My high school history teacher once told me that history is not a timeline — it’s a story. She threw out the linearity of history. She made what was dry and ancient, charming, engaging, and at times, even humorous. That was her imagination at work. And it helped me develop a love for the social sciences. Our imaginations can be quite contagious, I learned.

But can this love for the imaginative ever find a place in the real world? Certainly.

More and more young people today want to work for startups, where business meets creativity, where what may seem impossible today is reality tomorrow. Who knew that you could pay for your Starbucks coffee without cash or credit card? You can. Just scan your Starbucks card from your smartphone. Who knew that you could get a treadle pump for under $40 that can help farmers irrigate in the developing world? Just look at the work of entrepreneur Paul Polak. Who knew that we’d be talking in just 140 characters in the 21st century? Perhaps, the folks at Twitter did.

Imagination creates not just fairy tales and children’s books but a new vision for the way we conduct our lives. Imaginations challenge the norm, push boundaries and help us progress.

Unfortunately, that imagination is getting sidelined in classrooms, where the emphasis has been on grades and testing for too long, in workplaces, where the prominence of Excel sheets and PowerPoint presentations has become a daily chore.

We need to encourage more creativity. Forget the CV for a bit. Forget the obsession with grades.

Yes, even with a B, your kid can do great things in this world. In fact, that’s what distinguishes American education from its counterparts in Asia. There the emphasis is on rote learning, which is dogmatic and dull. Here, we discuss, analyze and challenge ideas.

But, let’s also invest in the creative side. If we encourage that brilliant math student to be imaginative as well, he could use those algorithms to innovate. If we encourage the biology student to be imaginative as well, she could design a new sustainable fuel source for us. If we encourage that economics buff to be imaginative as well, he could build a new people-friendly business model.

The tools are there. You just need to reorient them toward the unexpected. That’s where creativity — at home, in the classroom and in the workplace — is so essential.

That’s why, last week, I found myself, sitting with my mom late at night, rereading Shel Silverstein’s poems for children. Turns out, they’re just as good for adults, maybe even better.

Frozen Dream

I’ll take the dream I had last night

And put it in my freezer,

So someday long and far away

when I’m an old grey geezer,

I’ll take it out and thaw it out,

This lovely dream I’ve frozen,

And boil it up and sit me down

And dip my cold toes in.


– Shel Silverstein


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