Imagineering the Impossible to the Possible


Try to solve the following thought experiment before you read the paragraph that follows it.

 One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and medi­tation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?


If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.

Now it is, of course, impossible for the monk to duplicate himself and walk up the mountain and down the mountain at the same time. But in the visual image he does; and it is precisely this indifference to logic, this superimposition of one image over the other, that leads to the solution.

The imaginative conception of the monk meeting himself blends the journeys up and down the mountain and superimposes one monk on the other at the meeting place. The ancient Greeks called this kind of thinking homoios, which means “same.” They sensed that this was really a kind of mirror image of the dream process, and it led to art and scientific revelations.

Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible. Einstein, for example, was able to imagine alternatives to the sacred Newtonian notion of absolute time, and discovered that time is relative to your state of motion. Think of the thousands of scientists who must have come close to Einstein’s insight but lacked the imagination to see it because of the accepted dogma that time is absolute, and who must have considered it impossible to contemplate any theory.


Think of something that is impossible to do, but if it were possible to do, would change the nature of your business forever? Then try to come up with ideas that take you as close as possible to make that impossibility a reality.

EXAMPLE: A non-profit in Russia was concerned that over 30 percent of Russian drivers failed to comply with parking regulations concerning disabled spaces. The impossibility they imagined was to hire disabled people to park in wheelchairs in the parking spaces to ward off people trying to take the disabled places.

IMAGINEERING. Then they brainstormed for ideas to come as close to this impossibility as possible. How can we imagineer this into a realistic and practical idea?

IDEA: The idea they settled on was to use projections of real disabled people to ward off people who try to take disabled spaces. The system uses a camera which can detect whether or not a driver has a disabled sticker in their windshield — a hologram appears to confront them if they don’t. The image is projected onto a thin, water mist screen, which is initially invisible to the public eye. When the system detects an offender, a projection appears in the form of a disabled individual and says, ‘Stop. What are you doing? I’m not just a sign on the ground. Don’t pretend that I don’t exist.’

Another impossible idea they imagined was to deputize every resident and give them the authority to ticket and fine offending parkers. They imagineered this by introducing warning tickets designed to look like parking tickets. The tickets can be printed and issued by anyone and placed on any car wrongly parked in a disabled space. This campaign enables all residents to lend a helping hand. Participants are encouraged to place them on cars which they find wrongly parked in disabled bays. The tickets look like parking fines and feature text reminding the recipient of the importance of refraining from using the spaces.

When the non-profit participants imagineered the impossibilities, their minds decomposed them into several parts and then focused on the interesting parts to build ideas. This focus on the interesting parts is what inspired the new insights and ideas.

(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;  Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

One response to this post.

  1. I liked it. It is practical and make sense to me. Imaginations is a part of Creativity.


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