The Completely Practical Value of Imagination


In addition to writing this blog, playing with  distastefully modified cars and mystifying Koreans with my awesome hanguel skills, I am a graduate student in Paichai University‘s second language acquisition (TESOL) department. As part of my studies, I’ve been collaborating with one of my professors on a scientific paper investigating motivation in language learning. This sounds riveting, I’m sure, but stick with me just a bit longer.

It turns out that we can, with a good deal of accuracy, predict how motivated a student will be to learn a language. Pretty much all we need to know is how well they’ve imagined their future with that language.

Textures, taste, sound, passion, a triumph of the concrete and sensual over the abstract – these are the things we find again and again when we seek to distinguish motivated language learners from demotivated learners. There’s no reason to believe this only applies to language learning either.

As a writer, I find this both fascinating and not very surprising and here’s why. Think of the least creative people you know. Lots of beige. Lots of doing a job nobody in their right mind would ever choose as a career. Lots of sitting at home watching day time TV and eating bland sauces. Lots of getting dementia in their early 60’s. Do any of these characteristics of creativity-free people overlap, even a little bit, with the hard chargers you’ve met? Have you ever come across an ambitious person who is that boring? I haven’t, and honestly, avoiding the propagation of boring people is reason enough to emphasize creativity.

But it is not the only reason. Orwell once said that “if people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” I would substitute “communicate” for “write,” but Georgey-poo is essentially correct. Communication that makes sense reflects a thought process that makes sense. A thought process that makes sense reflects having your intellectual shit together. Orwell, had he combined this observation with his observations on literary craft might have noticed something even more basic about communication – without imagination there is no reason to think or write or speak, except perhaps for regurgitation.

I can’t help thinking how this applies to non-artistic professions (ie, the majority of professions and the vast, vast majority of important professions). Take a sewage management engineer, for example. We would not normally think of sewage professionals as overly creative, but imagine how much work she put into reaching that position. What dreams drove our sewage engineer to endure calculus three and fluid dynamics? What visions of future glory/respectability/safety/wealth sustained her through the late nights studying and the early mornings spent literally examining crap? Can she imagine the taste of $8 truffles and champagne at EnormoCorp’s annual company party? Does she get tingly thinking of how much more accomplished she’ll be than her former classmates at the 20 year reunion? Does she like the thought of laborers depending on her for guidance? Or maybe it was fear. Is she so afraid of trying to retire on $22,000 a year she’d do anything to avoid that fate? She had something and, whatever that something was, even turd herders needed imagination to make it.





If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying the author’s novel.

For customers living in East Asia.



  1. Michelle Snyder · · Reply

    Nice one Ben. This piece totally motivated me as both an ESL teacher and a writer. Thanks so much. On a side note, the last paragraph also reminded of some of the aims of “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich.

  2. I’m glad you liked it. I’m getting more and more into creativity research and, it appears, imagination has at least as much power as IQ, probably more.

  3. Michelle · · Reply

    If you haven’t already, check out Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s under the radar groundbreaking but a must read – especially if this is your emphasis.

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