As a child, I played Marker People.
It was a simple game, and one I inevitably played alone. (A bit too out-there for my friends to embrace.)
But who needed friends? Or dolls? Or computers?
In my tiny hands, a box of standard-issue Crayola markers came to life—not as drawing instruments, but as makeshift human figurines. They danced, fought, laughed, fell in love, got married, and exchanged marker caps so the world could see that Mrs. Yellow had chosen Guy Green.
As kids, we all had our Marker People—imaginative worlds that we could escape to at any time.
But somewhere along the line, we, like sentimental Velveteen Rabbits, became real. Real people with real jobs, real homes, real bills, and real responsibilities.
And in the midst of all that reality, we lost track of the key to our sanity and success: imagination.
I used to watch my nephew explode into the front yard not as an average 4-year-old boy, but as Master Deven, stair-leaping, yahooing sensei-cowboy on a mission with Spider Man.
I remember watching my 8-year-old niece perform concerts, complete with interpretive dance routines, alongside her imaginary triple-platinum band. Her younger brother, standing in the audience, would create swords out of hairbrushes and battle pirate kings and gorillas during the show. (Very diverse fan base.)
My 3-year-old wraps a piece of tape around his finger and then zooms around the house for an hour. Because clearly said finger is now a fighter jet. (What isn’t so clear is why we’ve ever bothered to buy him a toy airplane.)
But it leaves me wondering: When did we stop believing? When did we stop imagining? And why are we surprised at our thirst for anything creative?
It is, after all, imagination that fuels creativity.
When we blur the lines of reality, we allow our minds to stretch and wander; we invite inspiration to strike.
In pursuing a creative career or tackling a creative project (hint: every career and project is creative), we choose to push ourselves beyond familiarity—to think, even live, outside of the box.
Kids are masters of this way of thinking. But not because they read books on creative strategy or attend marketing seminars in droves.
Kids think outside the box because they do not see a box. They see a 4-cornered hat or a baseball diamond or a doodlebug with no legs. But they do not see a box.
Then one day, someone teaches them to color inside the lines.
Someone takes the cap off Mr. Orange and writes the alphabet on wide-ruled paper.
In many ways, the world opens up when we learn these tools. But there is a permanence to such things. Like words on a page, a certain way of communicating and learning is written into malleable minds and cannot ever be erased.
But it can be rewritten in a thousand new and unexpected ways.
Sensory marketing was a hot-button topic at one point, and it plays into the story marketing craze of today.
To succeed, we must evoke the senses—a creative challenge that plagues many grown-ups. Perhaps because, in strategizing brainstorming and managing ideation, we’ve lost something of the world beyond boxes.
So why not grow a little by getting young again? By unleashing the evocative power of your very own imagination? It’s still there. And it wants you to tap in.
Have you ever thought about how sensory-ific your imagination is, at its core? The most visceral memories I have of my childhood are of moments when I was pretending.
I can tell you what it smelled like in the attic as I waited, locked in a tower, for Prince Charming to ride up and save me from my doom.
I can still feel the waves jostling me as I swim across the living room—a.k.a. the world’s most turbid and enormous ocean—to save my stuffed pig from an uncertain death on his distant armchair island.
Perhaps your exploration into imagination won’t involve rescuing stuffed animals or bouncing Marker People around on your desk in makeshift adventures. (I’d prefer you keep your job – for now.)
But you’ll never scratch the surface of what you can dream up if you keep your nose buried in that phone.
Your next great idea is much more likely to crop up during your walk through a field of wildflowers than as you read an article that’s been fed to you via friend X + Facebook algorithm Y.
It’s not lurking in your Instagram feed so much as hiding under that pile of wood in the garage.
And if you don’t know where to find it, just go hang out with a kid for 30 minutes. Not feeding them or bathing them or driving them to school, but truly hanging out with them. Let them lead. And pay attention.
And while you’re at it, let some of that free thinking rub off on you.
It will make your work better. It will make your process better. And it’s likely to make your life better, too.
Because bringing back imagination means feeling and excitement get to move back into reality, where they belong.
To this day, I see a pile of markers and wonder why they are sleeping. I watch my daughter color and am embarrassed at how exposed Mr. Purple must feel without his cap on. The task of drawing should be left to the crayons; markers have feelings and stories and dreams. I know what their voices sound like and how they arrange their furniture.
After years without exercise, the muscle of imagination may have atrophied a bit. But if we flex it and push it, in no time at all, we’ll look around and realize we’re living outside the box.
Or is that a four-cornered hat?
The first draft of this post originally appeared on the Canright Communications blog a lifetime ago.