Several years ago I created and ran an organization called Passport to Boise. It was a summer program geared towards kids that helped them get out of the house, learn about local businesses, and ultimately explore potential career options.
Here’s a brief explanation of how it worked: a local business (say, a pawn shop or dental office or product manufacturer) would agree to host at least one event per month for the 3 main summer months (June, July, and August). The event they hosted could be an activity, a workshop of some kind, a behind-the-scenes look at the business and how it made money, or whatever else they wanted to do…the only stipulation was that it had to be about the business and not just a product or service showcase.
My goal was to expose these kids, ages 7-17, to as many different potential business types and industries as we could in the hopes that it might give them a sense of direction when it came to choosing a career path one day. At our peak we had around 50 businesses and over 300 kids participating each summer.
Anyway, one of the events that I hosted personally was called The Young Entrepreneurs Workshop. It was a 2-day event designed to teach kids about entrepreneurship and owning a business.
For the activity portion on the second day, we decided to have the kids be split into groups and create a fictional product. They had to create it, name it, price it, and then pitch it to me and the other colleagues on the panel, Shark Tank style. The best presentation won the grand prize, which I believe was two movie tickets per team member or something like that.
One of my clients at the time, a local pawn shop, agreed to let me come to his store and go in the back to find old junk they had that could never be sold because it was broken, obsolete, or simply unusable in some other way.
Back at the workshop, we divided the kids up into 3 groups of 6 and gave each team a roll of duct tape. In turn, they each went to the pile of stuff and chose one item. When we were done with that each team had a roll of duct tape and 6 items to use for building their product. The only rules we stipulated were that they use only the duct tape and the items they chose to build their product. Within those parameters everything else was fair game.
As the teams began working on their ideas they would intermittently send over a representative to ask me a question about the activity…
“Are we allowed to…?” they wanted to know, filling in the blank with a question about the process.
“Are we allowed to make the product for kids?”
“Are we allowed to make whatever we want?”
“Are allowed to only use what we need?”
Yes, yes, yes. Yes!
The hardest part was simply getting them to not ask permission to imagine! When I told them that if they were following the two simple rules we had put in place and that they could do whatever they could imagine, their eyes would light up and they would eagerly go back to the group with this news.
This entire exercise was designed to get them to imagine, to create, to dream. I wanted them to experience a time in their short lives where there were as few limitations as possible and simply be a kid, with a kid’s imagination.
Somewhere along the line, somewhere between being a kid and becoming an adult with adult responsibilities, we lose our capability to simply imagine. To dream of potential and possibility. It is heartbreaking that the world, pain, suffering, a mortgage, worrying about someone stealing your PIN, dealing with anxiety or depression or grief stamps this out of our souls. It is devastating (and I don’t think that is too strong of a word) that this happens to so many of us.
Think of the innovation, the improvements on the world, the alleviation of pain, and everything else that goes along with that if large swaths of us never stopped dreaming. Of imagining. Of Being.
The team that ultimately won the competition had created a “robot” called the Soldier Saver. It consisted of an old Rumba vacuum cleaner with a toy machine gun attached to it with duct tape and a discarded drone remote control.
“Ok, tell me what this is all about,” I said.
The group’s spokesperson, a young boy about 9 years old, spoke up.
“This is the Soldier Saver. It is a military robot that can go safely into enemy territory and kill terrorists with putting any soldier’s life in danger. We are selling it for one million dollars,” he said confidently.
Egging him on a bit I said, “What makes you think this robot is worth a million dollars?”
“Sir, this robot’s cost is much less than one soldier’s life,” he said quietly.
You could have heard a pin drop in that room. I looked at my co-panelists and saw that more than one of them had tears in their eyes.
I nodded slowly and offered, “That is a good enough reason for me.”
Needless to say, we awarded them the grand prize.
But the real grand prize was won by everyone in that room that day. It was the quiet reminder that imagination can be one of the most powerful forces on the planet and that it is critical - critical! - that we not lose it in our young children or in ourselves.
It can mean the difference between both literal and metaphorical death. The death of our soul.
Don’t let your soul die. Keep imagining.