By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
A dreamer is a person with a fruitful imagination; a dreamer is practical when imagination is combined with action to produce useful products or services, yielding profits. America has been home to many practical dreamers: Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, Walt Disney–the list is endless. Most started life in the United States as poor immigrants or humble locals, seeking to improve their condition, surpassed their dearest dreams. A dreamer enjoys indulging his fantasies without doing anything to realize them; a realist keeps trudging along in life doing what is customary, certain, or conveniently profitable, without achieving anything of great splendor. As partners but separate individuals, dreamer and realist can function productively as well as one individual possessing both qualities. If you are not such a person, find a complimentary partner. Some of the most successful teams in the corporate world are those of the imaginative engineer and the person of business. Many marriages do well also, combining the dreamer and the pragmatist. Most of us are not practical dreamers; otherwise, we would be far more successful; but we all possess a measure of imagination and practicality, which we can enlarge if we follow right thoughts, right purposes, and right behaviors.
Most of what we think is day-dreaming, escaping our limitations and humdrum existence into worlds of unrealistic fantasies, with no chance of actualization. Thoughts are birds in flight; but they can be directed towards a goal, a destination, while retaining some of their winged power. Through the exercise of the will, even in sleep after some years of practice, you can focus your thoughts on a specific subject, and with laser strength penetrate the barrier of your problem. You can view the universe of matter and mind as a complex web of problems, a never-ending series of questions, asking like a child why, why, why. Daddy, why do things fall down? It’s gravity, my child. What is gravity? Gravity is a force. What is a force, daddy? Oh shut up, can’t you see I’m busy paying bills? That is the end of questioning, the beginning of routine.
Practical dreaming to create new things is the opposite of routine. Direct your thoughts to what is novel, unfamiliar, even surprising, in a strange territory. Expect to discover good things, expect you will solve your problem, expect you will be able survive the wilderness of the imagination to reach civilization. That’s self-confidence, the armor for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Abraham Lincoln went through some very disappointing periods leading the Union armies in the Civil War. Despite his melancholy nature, his faith in a united America never wavered. Faith is the springboard of creative work: fervently believing in something gets you going, building, achieving; doubt lays you low in lethargy.
Yeah, but how do I acquire an active faith? I consider the accomplishments I admire, choosing one I am well suited by my nature to emulate. I admire the works of Lord Bertrand Russell; I seek to think, write, and act as he did in his life, because I have similar talents to his, although I may not be as gifted as he was. I do the best I can in my chosen direction. Whom do you admire? Do you have any true affinity for the projects you are to undertake to approach your master? If not, look elsewhere for your proper occupation. But anywhere you look, you cannot be without proper direction.
Thoughts need reins; galloping this way and that they go nowhere. To get somewhere, aim towards a specific goal, a purpose, a project to complete, at a specific point in the future. The future is shaped by our thoughts and goals to be bright, dark, or gray; a right goal helps realize a bright future for ourselves and our community. But your goal cannot be placed too far into the future; if your project is very large, requiring much time to complete, divide it into sub-goals, each one with a completion date. I know that until you get accustomed to goal setting, it will stress you, and make you anxious. Bear up, persist, the stress will lift. If you cannot meet a deadline, don’t despair; next time set a reasonable time line. When we are working creatively, independently, our goals are tools, not commands from authority. Imaginative ideas incubate, on occasion requiring a longer or shorter period to hatch.
Most people don’t direct their imagination. Listen to a group talking socially or even for business purposes. People talk as they think, in a confused, disorganized, random way. They don’t stay with a topic of discussion for long, wondering this way and that, unless they are tightly controlled by debating rules, which often some individuals will defy to rant on and on about their pet grievances. In synergistic groups for creative work, the proctor needs to maintain discipline on members to stay on focus; yet allow enough freedom for exploration into the unknown.
The unknown, the unsolved problem, and the mystery are always unpredictable and our conquest of these cannot be programmed. We can follow, however, some general approaches. Do not get boxed in preconceived or customary ideas. Dare to go outside established boundaries. Do not assume more constraints to the problem than are actually there. Allow your imagination free flight, simply recording any and all ideas that occur without criticizing them or analyzing them at the time of brainstorming. You choose and analyze ideas later, during the critical phase that follows as which ideas are practical and which are nonsense. Sometimes, the most apparently nonsensical, far fetched, ridiculous, outlandish ideas will lead to the most important breakthroughs. Because these ideas seemed unlikely to be of value, they were ignored by other thinkers.
We cannot ignore any possibilities when exploring the unknown; the solution can be hiding anywhere in the problem manifold. Walt Disney and company called this “imagineering.” Disney’s business was entertainment, to amuse children and their families. From the first primitive images of Mickey Mouse to his final classic “Mary Poppins,” Disney followed the principles of “imagineering:” engineering fantasies to satisfy his ultimate goal of entertainment, with stupendous financial success.
Before Disney, Thomas Edison mastered the art of “imagineering” with a sixth-grade education. Edison tested thousands of processes and materials to come up with a working light bulb. One of the materials for his bulb filament was a mustache hair; how ridiculous can you get? Finally, a tungsten filament did the job, but it burned too quickly to ashes in spite of the vacuum. The inventor had used the best available equipment to produce vacuum in the bulb. Did he give up? No, he designed his own vacuum pump for a far better vacuum than had existed on earth before. Success and fortune followed, with the formation of the Edison Company for the production and distribution of electric lights, starting with Wall Street of New York.
Edison was a model of well-directed persistence for success. Smart persistence on a task works because it is a rare quality; most people quit early, tired or disheartened. People generally seek instant gratification, fast, fast relief, quick weight loss, free gifts, and lucky big wins. Few are those willing to dig, dig, and dig for the gold. The Mother Lode of gold, the richest in the American West was found a few feet below the surface gold miners originally extracted, after which they quit the mine. Persistence is right behavior for the practical dreamer, poking a problem from one side, then another, and another, until the dreamer finds a weakness in the shell surrounding the problem. Try this method to break a macadamia nut with an ordinary cracker; many times you will succeed. Brute force also works if you don’t have a macadamia cracker. Place the nut inside a paper bag and whack it with a hammer. Sometimes, brute force is the right action to put our dreams into profitable practice.
Brute force may be useful on occasion, but as a rule the practical dreamer is gentle and deliberate. The great innovative surgeon works with precision and care in cutting out a tumor, bringing tissues together, and suturing. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt worked with many detailed sketches, studies, details, before putting paint on canvass or wall to create an artistic masterpiece. The astronomer searches the night sky patiently and systematically to locate an unknown celestial body that will bear the searcher’s name. We should all try to be like the people weaving the famed oriental rugs with simple tools, never tiring of detail, as if time stands still for us, and eternity is in our every moment.