The Answer to an Age Old Question: Expereince or imagination, which one is more important

One of my employees was in a meeting this past week with me and a lot of other very smart people when she told me about one of her graduate school assignments. She’s acquiring her master’s in business administration so the frequency of thought-provoking assignments has been increasing and she was talking to me about it with genuine inquiry—as if such matters were even a struggled presumption. The question for which she had been given 30 minutes to answer was what was more important in business, imagination or experience. I told her that the answer was very easy, it was imagination—clearly and unequivocally. Obviously, that had not been the theme of her classroom discussion so I’ll share my reasons so that others can come to learn the priorities for themselves and thus focus their energy in the proper places.

I’m obviously at a place in life where I have both imagination and experience so my daily performance develops along that trajectory of expectation. But that was not always the case. Without an imagination there really is no other means of developing any kind of project from conception to inception. Nothing happens in business or in anything unless the imagination first unleashes the concept of something—so without imagination nothing happens, making it clearly the most important thing in business. Imagination is the escape velocity that an idea has to have to leave the gravitational holdings of reality, to break through to something in an orbit all its own. The process is often violent and messy just like a rocket trying to escape the gravity of earth—until the weightlessness of space calms everything down and the rocket then becomes its own master.

Without imagination there is nothing for experience to do. Experience is a useless thing by itself because if the human race always keeps everything in a static development where experience rules all decision-making then nothing new develops. We’d just do the same things over and over again. But business is all about changing and developing—nothing is static in a capitalist society so an edge is always needed to perpetuate competitive advantages. Experience can take an idea and bring it to life, but it is the imagination that creates the idea.

Asking if something should be or how it might play against a present reality is a powerful conceptual device. Imagination is not just important in conceiving new concepts but in trouble-shooting, which is an essential part of even mature products. Asking what ifs when problems arise can be difficult and experience may limit the options if the reality of options are limited to what has been known. The problem may be something that has never been experienced leaving a conceptual faculty of thought needed to uncover what needs to be examined.

Socially this question has had devastating results on the development of our civilization. We do a great job with kids in developing their imaginations, but obviously in our education system we have put the emphasis on experience as the primary focus of business development, and that is incorrect. By focusing on experience, it has justified the long necessity for education because the selling point is that is how young students can gain experience. But in reality, most children are quite good at thinking out problems and solving them whereas most adults will linger on topics for too long because they get caught trying to bend situations toward their experience—which most of the time doesn’t have what it needs to solve new challenges.

Playing at life will make a far more effective business person than a straight-laced experienced practitioner of yesterday’s rules. If you have ever pursued a patent for a new invention this problem emerges quite explicitly. Inventors are usually very imaginative whereas the reviewers at the patent office are there to point out every static reality possible to ensure that what has been invented is truly new and not just a retread of an old idea. Both sides are often frustrated with the other because they are at cross purposes from one another. But without the imagination of new inventions there would be no reason for the other to exist. In order for experience to happen someone would have had to create the means of learning something to begin with, and without imagination nothing ever gets initiated. No wheel would have been constructed, no fire started for the first time, no kite flown to jostle loose the mechanisms of electricity. Or any experiments with radio waves to unleash the modern powers of communication. Just learning what was known and applying experience to maintaining it doesn’t advance anything. Only imagination can advance an idea from a thought into the birthplace of reality.

Critics of mine often say that I’m a “big picture guy” because my interests are mostly on conceptual development and outside the box thinking on everything. Even though I understand the need for experience, maintaining what has been known with static analysis isn’t very interesting to me—essentially because anybody can do those things. To those who are blind to such opportunities the big picture is a useless task of an artist that has little regard for the rules established by experience. Those who favor experience over imagination truly desire that things stay within the realm of their expertise so that they can be acknowledged as masters of their specific fields. These are the types of people who will give an opinion on a matter by saying that they aren’t an attorney, or they aren’t cooks, or they aren’t CPAs—shortchanging their comments just as they make them. To those types of people, they lack the imagination to think outside their field of professional endeavor so they refuse the responsibility to advance a thought if it falls outside of their expertise. But often this is just what’s needed. This problem is the equivalent to a person driving a car but having to pull off the side of the road because they have a flat tire and refusing to change that tire because that’s not their job as defined by experience. So they sit on the side of the road and call out for help from someone who only changes tires for a living.

To me it’s a very obvious situation and my experience tells me that imagination is far more important in any task. Imagination is needed to solve problems especially when they fall outside of what has been known previously, which is most things. Attempting to bend the rules of existence to the static confines of what has been known is probably one of the most destructive attributes of any society that yearns to call itself advanced. Any time I will listen to the advice of a free-thinker that is deeply imaginative over that static resistance of an experienced person, because experience can only articulate what has been known, it doesn’t produce what could be. Only imagination does that leaving imagination as the most important tool that not only business has to work with, but that human beings use to advance their cause. While we are teaching children the things they need to learn in life the best thing we could do for them is teach them to have an imagination and thus, to think. The worst thing we could do is to teach them to confine their operational reality to the limits of experience. To do so is to limit all opportunities to the realm of experience, and that isn’t conducive to anything new, only the old static problems that were there when experience was formed leaving advancement of any kind to be elusive, and unfulfilled.

Rich Hoffman

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