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Once upon a time, there was a child with the most vivid imagination. In the kid’s mind, a bike ride was no mere form of rudimentary transportation. The two-wheeler was equipped with turbo boosters ten times more powerful than the Millennium Falcon. Pressing a bright red button on the handlebars bestowed invisibility.

To the child, action figures weren’t toys. They were actors. The playroom, a stage. Each day, a performance was produced that even the collective powers of Shakespeare and Spielberg couldn’t have conjured. Worlds were created. Futures were envisioned. Dreams came to life.
Then the kid grew up. Routines were taught, and rules were enforced. Responsibilities became the norm. Conformity crept in, and fearlessness crept out. Imaginary friends were sent away with a one-way ticket.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, that child is all of us. Or, was all of us. We’re likely many years removed from our creative heyday. However, I refuse to accept that our imaginative powers can’t be reinvigorated. It’s still possible to spark the creative side of our brain into igniting like its younger self. Here are some ways to stick a tap into the fountain of creative youth and smuggle it into adulthood.

Always ask why
While on vacation with his family, Edwin Land took a photo of his three-year-old daughter. She asked why she couldn’t see the picture right away. Land pondered that question, and soon after invented the Polaroid camera. Kids aren’t bound by patterns and inhibitions. Ignorance is, in their case, an advantage. Our brain wants to finish puzzles, but often, the best pieces aren’t in the box because they don’t exist yet. Start making it a habit to question everything. Simply asking “Why can’t there be a better way?” has sparked many successful creators.

Our brain wants to finish puzzles, but often, the best pieces aren’t in the box because they don’t exist yet. Start making it a habit to question everything.”

Let yourself get bored, then daydream your way out of it
Although quarantine life may have brought back the discomforts of boredom for many, we rarely let ourselves stay bored. But one of its biggest proponents was, ironically, the creator of the devices we grab when we have nothing else to do. Steve Jobs said, “Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, and out of curiosity comes everything.” Your mind needs to wander, sometimes for hours, to come up with something truly unique.

The findings of a 2014 study published in Neuropsychologia suggests that creative thinking may involve greater cooperation between parts of the brain associated with things like mind wandering and selective attention. Our brain has an optimal creative position, and we rarely let it set up properly. For the mind to be its most creative, turn off the screens, embrace the quiet and let boredom sink in. Your imagination will roll up its neocortex and get to work.

Don’t worry about looking dumb
Kids don’t care how they look when they dance. They don’t hesitate to say what they feel, and they certainly don’t mind looking foolish. If you go into brainstorming sessions without worrying how you’ll be perceived, it’ll free you to think wildly.

Hack into your brain’s source code and reprogram its embarrassment meter down a few notches. Before starting his empire, Walt Disney was actually rejected from one of the first cartoonist jobs he applied to. Even this legendary creative needed some time to establish his confidence. To make yourself more comfortable, start by sharing your ideas with trusted coworkers. If you’re afraid to ask something, preface it with, “This might be ridiculous, but... ” No one will fault you for seeking clarity. There’s no such thing as being dumb when you’re on the quest for a truly great idea. Screw how you look.

There’s no such thing as being dumb when you’re on the quest for a truly great idea. Screw how you look.”

Read Calvin and Hobbes for inspiration
To children, the world is a place of constant wonder. Any outing or activity can become an adventure. An ideal showcase of childlike imagination is cartoonist Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. The stuffed tiger Hobbes springs to life within Calvin’s wild mind, and that’s just the beginning of Calvin’s imaginings. He has a space explorer alter ego named Spaceman Spiff, he creates elaborate artwork out of snowmen and he turns upside-down cardboard boxes into transmogrifier devices. If you’re looking for a creative guru, let Calvin be your muse.

Enter a cartoon caption contest
Here’s an exercise to kick-start your creativity: submit to cartoon caption contests. Search the finalists of any week’s New Yorker contest, and you’ll see a common thread: the best captions create the best story out of the image. Sure, the caption should be funny too, but the winners are always a product of wonderful creative thought. Make these a part of your mind’s training regimen. Think of it like a five-mile run for your brain.

Now, go create like a kid
Hopefully these tips throw some hot coals into the engine room of your imagination. We need big, original ideas now more than ever. The kid you once were is still in there, holding a magical amulet full of creativity, prepared to wow the world again. ca

Dave Kuhl is a writer and creative director who’s worked for top agencies in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. He also cofounded a boutique agency and is a four-time Cannes Lion winner. Along with being a contributor to Communication Arts, he works as a brand creative director/writer for Bauer Hockey.

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