In our explorations of intelligence, innovation rises to the top as a key component for actualizing value. Knowledge alone, with actualization, produces a net return of exactly zero. But imagination changes that.
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Einstein regularly championed imagination as being more important than knowledge. He used his own imagination—wondering what it would be like to ride a beam of light, for instance—to formulate the Theory of Relativity. Blogger Jeff Dance writes, “Studies have shown that highly creative people are highly intelligent but highly intelligent people are not always creative. … Highly intelligent individuals such as Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Beethoven were highly imaginative, curious, and creative—all creating new concepts and ideas that have value. … Ultimately, our high regard for these intelligent individuals comes from their innovations that only their creative intelligence could aspire.” 1
Where does innovation come from? Highly creative people admit they don’t really know. Imagination is not finite and strictly local. It’s not necessarily even personal. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, “shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius.” 2
Gilbert’s TED talk on accessing genius is one of the most popular TED talks ever produced, perhaps because it holds out hope for those of us who would never consider ourselves to be a genius. Everything changes when we shift our understanding from being a genius to having a genius, or to accessing genius—whatever that may turn out to be in the moment.
Author Jeff Dance goes on to clarify further on our expanding understanding of what intelligence really is. “Creativity is the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Once we get beyond survival mode, we have the capability to exercise more fully our intellectual powers to create. Creativity, spontaneity, and problem-solving (often an innovation trigger) are in the upper most triangle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. That is because the upper tier called self actualization represents our need for knowledge where we have enough time to exercise our intelligence and be creative as we strive to improve ourselves. We can think bigger picture rather than focus on putting food on the table. I submit that this is the primary reason why the pace of change has been so dramatic in the past 100 years. Everything has finally aligned so that we have more time to exercise our highest form of intelligence. Our historical innovation and quest for more innovation: From cave man to renaissance man to modern man, our imaginative thinking has led us to create continual incremental and breakthrough innovation that has accumulated into the luxurious life we enjoy today.”
Here’s where I question his line of thinking. For starters, very few people in the world are enjoying a luxurious life. And for everyone who is, there are side effects. Intelligence, as we have applied it, has created a level of environmental disruption such that climate change scientists are now speaking openly about near-term human extinction. Smart as we’ve been, it seems we’ve also been dumb when it comes to ensuring our own long-term survival.
This suggests another definition of true intelligence: the ability to know what’s appropriate. We all know people who seem to put their foot in their mouths effortlessly. To improve this skill (and our chances of survival), we need to accept that we don’t already know everything we need to know. And here’s the big challenge: to be interested in creating collaboratively with nature. But that’s not our human default setting; we tend to create first, ask questions later (questions like, how do we fix what went wrong?).
The blogger explains why: “Why do we like to color, to draw, to play legos when young and later on to create new products, new companies, and new music? We are a highly intelligent species and our highest form of expression brings satisfaction to the soul! Some would call this emotional, some would call it intuition, and some would call it spiritual.”
If we truly have become more “spiritual,” now is the time to direct that aspect of intelligence in a new direction. The world doesn’t need more stuff. The world needs help and so do we, help to resolve the problems our inappropriate creating has generated. Turning the results we’ve got into the results we want—a livable world for our great grandchildren—will take all the intelligence and creativity we can muster.
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