Woodworking: A Tool for Developing Imagination

Like most latchkey kids who grew up in the ’80s, I watch too much TV. If you are ever in my shop you’ll likely see a small TV on in the background. Do I really pay attention to it? Not really. I’ll catch 10 or 15 seconds, remember the plot and move on. It’s white noise – my generation’s version of an “El Lector” (reader) in a cigar factory.

You’d be amazed what a random brain input can do for your thought processes while woodworking. This week, I caught a minute of a “House” episode where the good doctor saved a patient’s life by looking in a microscope, one of the most analog of diagnostic tools. The doctor’s young team was relying on data from every whiz-bang quad-billion dollar device known to the medical world – but it was Dr. House’s creative thinking that saved the day. The young team’s imagination was limited by their reliance on technology.

This got me thinking: Is technology having the same limiting effect on imagination and thought as George Orwell’s Newspeak language in his “1984?”

I saw something like this in the technology classes I taught in a high school. By the time they reach high school, you can divide most students into two classes: doodlers and non-doodlers. When it came time for using “creative technology” such as imagery and design programs, I found that the doodlers had a huge advantage over non-doodlers. In my opinion, it wasn’t artistic skill that made the difference, but an analytical imagination.

The doodlers took their experience and applied it instantly to the technology. They knew what they wanted to do and sought the tool within the program to accomplish it. The non-doodlers began by trying to find out which tools were where in the program and what they did. The difference is subtle, but it affects what is made.

The doodlers made complex items with themes and meaning from the get-go, while the non-doodlers made lots of boxes, circles and squiggly lines. Both groups were new to the programs, but the non-doodlers were almost instantly held back by the limit to their imaginations’ language.

Ever wonder why the “Maker Movement” has exploded? Look at the demographics. The generation who grew up learning by buying and assembling kits is now at an age where they have more discretionary income and are having kids. Guess what they’re sharing – the ability to buy and assemble parts and kits into stuff. Granted, they might hack those parts before assembly, but they’re still assembling ready-made parts.

Tell me that the limited creative language of prefab parts doesn’t stifle imagination. Where will the inventors of our next generation come from if this IKEA method of “you must adhere to what’s available” thinking becomes the norm?

The moral I took from the “House” episode was that if you need a doctor, you want one with a diagnostic imagination that’s not limited to what the latest machine will do. I want a doctor, or for that matter any professional (architect, researcher, scientist, etc.…) who thinks of technology as just a steppingstone to a larger goal. And I don’t want future generations of woodworkers to give up on  building a corner table because the box-joint jig only makes 90-degree corners.

The holiday season is almost upon us. So let’s do something a little different. This year, instead of a tablet or a smartphone, why don’t you buy yourself and your kid a weekend adventure or tool? Something to open up opportunities to practice and expand thinking creatively; something that’ll allow him or her to exercise the imagination in ways normal life doesn’t.

Being a woodworker, I suggest giving you and your kids the chance to learn something new. Sign up for a weekend class on basic joinery, then build a new bedroom set together – or a backyard Millennium Falcon treehouse! Whatever it is, make sure it’s a gift you can do together. It’s important to exercise and expand creativity, but it’s also important to demonstrate that this is a lifelong developmental process.

And in the world of Newspeak thinking, the kids with expanded creative resources will be the ones with a leg up on the minions.

Start prepping now. I’d like to hear your ideas on other woodworking gifts to share with the next generation with the goal of unlocking their creative thought processes. Share your ideas and thoughts in the comments section below and let’s discuss.

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