When art historians talk about the masters of Renaissance art – da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael – many of these artists are mentioned because of the way they were able to use their imagination to advance art and society. They saw the world in different ways and could present those new perspectives in a way that the rest of the world could interpret.
Or perhaps, for many of us, they come to mind because they were also Ninja Turtles…
These artists had a contemporary who trained and painted alongside them, commissioned by the same famous patrons, working in the same famous churches, but just not quite like them.
And not a Ninja Turtle.
Sandro Botticelli was prolific in his lifetime but his fame largely died with him in 1510. While a few kept his flame burning, Botticelli wouldn’t rise to recognition again until the 1800s. In 2016, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London curated a significant exhibition on his works and influence, and that influence is vast – from James Bond to Andy Warhol.
Botticelli is something of an outlier among the master painters of his era. As his contemporaries sought ever-increasing realism, Botticelli maintained subtle techniques that withdrew from this charge – strong outlines, figures that seemed separate to backgrounds, decadent foliage, links back to the Gothic style. He both sits firmly within the canon of Renaissance art, and as one of its most striking outsiders.
History records da Vinci as among the most imaginative minds of all time.
Botticelli has him covered.
When we consider imagination, we often view it through the lens by which we evaluate da Vinci. The Mona Lisa painter used his imagination for advancement, to create new things which advanced understanding or technique. Traditionally, this is the most valued form of imagination.
But there is another side to imagination, which fits with Botticelli’s work. Pure imagination is imagination which is for the self, which presents new things only because it can.
This is the imagination we should be valuing, fostering, and indulging. It is the most accessible form of imagination and it has side effects that can help our wellbeing – from creativity and resilience to social connection and mental health.
To do lists, calendars, Kanban boards. They all serve to remind you how much work is ahead of you. They can also be stumbling blocks to achieving the very things they outline.
Thankfully, within all of us is a tool we can use to reset our work mindset and improve our mental health.
According to a 2016 University of Otago study, people feel more positive and self-affirmed after undertaking creative tasks – an effect that can last for days. The science extends further, with neurologists observing alpha waves in the brains of people indulging in creativity. Alpha waves correlate with states of relaxation and when you are relaxed you’re much more likely to have that ‘eureka’ moment – just like Archimedes whose moment of genius came while relaxing in his Ancient Grecian tub.
TIP: If a project feels stuck and you need to give it a nudge, take a break and use your imagination on something completely unrelated for 10 minutes – write a poem, draw a picture, start knitting.
Something as simple as 10 minutes using your imagination could help set a mindset that helps solve your work issue and aid your mental wellbeing deep into the week.
I feel that a person may be happy in this world, and I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision.– adapted from William Blake
There are many articles on the internet which explore the place of empathy in workers and the workplace. In particular, debates centred on whether empathy can be learned are common.
Everyone is empathic and everyone can implement that empathy. Sometimes, however, it is a tool that needs to be sharpened. Using your imagination to embrace different perspectives and learning new things can be the sharpening stone.
Active curiosity uses and feeds our imagination. A 2017 study in the UK found that, on average, children ask 73 questions a day. As adults, for most people that number is less than 10.
TIP: Embrace that childhood mindset and start asking questions again. Ask them of your family, your colleagues, of Wikipedia. Listen to questions that others ask and store the best ones away for your own conversations or explorations.
People love to say they’re curious – just look at my LinkedIn profile – but how many of us actually live that mentality? How many questions can you ask today?
We all make mistakes and we all learn from them, but we don’t all embrace them. Start experimenting and see where it takes you. Try a favourite recipe, but make it from memory, or switch up the ingredients.
TIP: Listen to someone else’s failure story, take notes, and think about how it relates to you. What would you do differently? How could you innovate so you don’t end up in the same situation?
The language in this post is already dubious, so let’s go all in… if you want to see some of the best examples of learning from other people’s failures, check out F*^k Up Nights.
Imagination binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts.– adapted from WB Yeats
As adults, we see imagination in the da Vinci mold, where it advances our initiatives and techniques. We know we’re not da Vinci, so we relegate it to the space of children and frivolity.
There is, however, that other side to imagination, which we’ve explored through this article. Implementing imagination for its own sake not only leads us to be able to unlock its potential for advancement, it also enables us to see the pieces of ourselves.
Children are curious and inquisitive. They are playful and happy. They create for the sake of creating. All of these things happen while their brain is developing, while they are intensively learning. We often say we’re learning-obsessed, or curious, or quick learners, but how do we compare to our childhood selves?
TIP: Reclaim the word ‘childish’. How you do it is over to you: mindful colouring, board game lunches, arts and craft afternoons in the office, learn a fun new skill.
The next time someone calls you childish, own it (but refrain from calling them poo bum).
Using your imagination is good for your wellbeing, your productivity, it’s good for you. But it’s not something we embrace in our day-to-day lives. Throughout this article there are practical tools you can use to embrace and encourage your imagination.
TIP: Talk to others about these tools and how you can use them. Show them the result of your imaginative pursuits. Introduce activities into meetings and workshops. Ask questions from your imagination that others can answer from their imagination.
No matter what your role – manager or intern, parent or friend – you can be a leader in imagination by modelling imaginative practices.
What’s distinctive about humans is that we can imagine something and then make it real.– National Geographic
Maybe you’re not da Vinci. But you sure can be Botticelli.
Jamie is the Head of Communications and Wellness at Redvespa. With a background in museums and heritage, he loves to share a good story. The more outlandish, forgotten, or hidden, the better. As you’re reading this, he probably has a tab open following live cricket scores.
You can find Jamie at [email protected]