What To Do When You’ve Lost Your Dinosaur

Imagination is the spark plug for building new and innovative products. Sometimes, though, you lose that spark: life catches up, you focus on sitting through meetings, interviewing candidates, reading through analysis, and hunting down the status of what sits where. And it sucks. Your creativity is zapped. You lose your dinosaur.

Let me take a second to explain. While the 2008 Will Ferrell & John C. Reilly movie Step Brothers is rarely cited as a philosophical masterpiece, it has a brilliant scene where the two failure-to-launch protagonists of the film are encouraged by their step-/father, Robert, to avoid the temptation to fall into the adult world of oppressed imagination, lest they forget how to think in that imaginary way. Once upon a time as a child, Robert wanted to be a dinosaur, but his father told him to stop it and get a job… and sure enough, he couldn’t remember how to do it in his later years.

Don’t get me wrong, the key to building great products doesn’t require you to take on the mental prowess of our reptilian forefathers, but it does require you to break through the monotonous tasks that our adult world forces upon us. Building great products requires you to take a step outside of the world we know today and take a leap forward into an imaginary world that doesn’t exist yet. Building great products requires you to begin by thinking about problems in the abstract, not in the concrete world we live in. Building great products isn’t a natural flow with the way we’re forced to work; it’s a step into a world that can (and should) be easily ridiculed, because if it was easy, it would have already been built.

Looking back on 2015, there were a lot of once-imaginary things that I’m proud we brought to life at Pandora: from our Sponsored Listening product that reduces ads up to 90% while increasing our net monetization rates, to surpassing 500 unique personalization cohorts that use how people listen to music to predict things like whether or not they buy frozen food (seriously), to the Thumbprint Radio station that builds your own personal cross-genre cluster of tracks old and new. These were amazing launches that were back of the napkin ideas 12–24 months ago, and our team has grown into a fully fledged product management powerhouse with over a dozen focused on our monetization products alone.

Growth has brought more releases, bigger ambitions, open headcount, surpassing $1 billion in trailing 12 month revenue and career opportunities that I’m excited to be taking on in my early 30s. But, to be vulnerably honest, it’s come with personal internal struggle: the majority of my time is no longer spent directly imagining and building the future, but rather being updated through how we are executing toward our strategy, reviewing product requirements and mapping them to other projects in play, unblocking operational challenges, and hiring to bring in the next wave of innovations built on top of our plan.

I feel like I’m losing my dinosaur.

The high of thinking about a world that doesn’t exist and then building it is one that I don’t want to lose. So while my day job tasks may focus less on the creative applications I’m used to, it doesn’t mean that imagination doesn’t play a key role. Spending time exercising imagination can create worlds and ideas that you can bounce off your team, engaging in conversation, and hopefully triggering its own set of imagination with those working with you to build the future.

Stepping into the new year, I am committing to reigniting and exercising my imagination. It’s not a resolution; it’s an ongoing promise to myself to not lose sight of the high of creating new worlds, regardless of how taxing grown up stuff can be.

Cultivating imagination can be done in many ways, though it always requires you to articulate them in some capacity. By no means an exhaustive list, these are some of my favorite ways I’ve found to stimulate new thoughts of abstraction and imagination.

Read — Fiction & Non-Fiction

I don’t mean Twitter feeds here, though they are compelling. News, magazine articles and blog posts (irony!) are ok, and can stimulate some thought, but there is nothing better than getting lost in a book. Personally, I’ve had a tendency to read behavioral economics books, but if you read the same genre & style of book too much, then you’ll get caught in a self-referential loop. Bring some variety to your reading list.

Even when reading non-fiction, do your best to take a pause every few minutes and imagine the world or application that the book is describing. Ask yourself what the meta-themes are, even if you did hate your required English Lit class in college (guilty). Allow yourself to get lost in that world.

Some books from the past few years that have made me like the way my brain works when I read them:

If reading isn’t your shtick, try audio books over podcasts while you’re commuting or exercising. That said, immersing yourself into the book without distraction seems to be the most effective.

No Time for Boredom — Daydream

My least favorite adult game to play is talking about how busy we are and we don’t have any downtime. This is flat out bullshit. Everyone has downtime in their day. Even the busiest executives have taxiing time on the runway, a commute to and from work, the 30 minutes before falling asleep. You just don’t think you have time when you’re bouncing from your Instagram feed, to a quick burst of tweets, to checking snaps.

While I’m not one for religion, I do love the Buddhist concept of mindfulness: to be aware of your subjective conscious experience from moment to moment. If you’re in a state where you feel compelled to check one of your 50 apps on your phone, ask yourself what compels you to do that. Is it a moment where you’re trying to step away from the task you are focused on at the time?

If yes, put your phone down and lose yourself in a daydream. Think about something crazy. See where your thoughts take you. Some of my favorite daydreams/thought experiments:

  • What would it be like if we could teleport anywhere in the world?
  • What happens when we can take summer holidays in space? Do beach resorts have the same appeal? Are there new destination hubs that are away from current vacation getaways?
  • How would we change as a society if all of our thoughts were zapped into a unique Twitter feed for each person? What if it was open? What if you could see who saw which thought?
  • What will life be like when we don’t have to take our cell phone everywhere?
  • If we all felt like we were a part of the same community, would we still have conflict? How would it look? Do we always need to have an us vs them?

The further you can make these daydreams or thoughts away from your day-to-day responsibilities, the better. Your daily issues have a tendency to make their way into these thoughts, and you can often unlock something unintentionally through this. But more than anything, it just feels good to get out of your own headspace for a few minutes.

Disclosure: I haven’t smoked pot in years, so you don’t need to get stoned to think about this stuff :)

Art — Interpretation & Admiration

Sometimes a change of medium (no pun intended) can get your brain activated in ways that trigger a flow of thought that you don’t expect. On a trip to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, I was surprised how much I was drawn to not the full sculptures by Rodin, but rather the studies he used to make his classic works like The Thinker.

Various studies by Rodin on how to sculpt hands for his masterpieces.

Perhaps not earth-shattering for most, I couldn’t help but pull my attention away from the calculated studies Rodin employed to determine how to best sculpt his ultimate works. Before building his masterpiece, he first had to think about how to best bring a hand to life before tackling the rest of the body. It struck me as remarkably similar to building products, you don’t build your desired end state without some milestones, phases or experiments along the way.

Since experiencing those Rodin studies, I have become obsessed with learning about the method that goes behind masterpieces. Whether it has been Monet’s sketches or Matisse’s cutout studies, thinking not only about how creators built their masterpieces, but also what inspired them to produce their study brings on a thought of tackling problems.

Take a trip to your local art museum or gallery, read about what inspired the artists and how they produced the works that resonate with you. Think about how they viewed the world and abstracted it into their works. The point isn’t to stroke your ego and think you’re destined for a masterpiece, but rather think about your methods for tackling problems and how you apply them.

Talk Through Others’ Challenges

Talking to friends and colleagues about their problems, even if you are an introvert at heart, can be a forceful way to immerse yourself into a different world. We all have a natural tendency to solve problems using the same patterns that have personally worked for us. Without taking a stop to learn how others tackle problems, we can get trapped in applying the same method time and time again.

This trap becomes more and more enticing as we get deeper into our career. In the early years of building things, you don’t have previous experience so you naturally tend toward asking for help. Once you’re a decade+ into your career, there’s a fear that a request for help/advice may look like an admission that we don’t know what we’re doing. (Spoiler alert: every situation is unique, there is rarely a playbook for solving a given problem; trying new ways to solve new problems can lead to more productive outcomes.)

Talk to your significant other or friends about something that’s challenging them in their job. You’ll be surprised by how forthcoming people can be about venting about their challenges. For those that are open to a discussion, immerse yourself into trying to empathize with the problem. Ask the questions that you would ask in trying to understand it.

CAUTION: do not start providing suggestions for how you would solve it. Keep that stuff to yourself unless you are asked.

Be willing to be on the other side of the conversation. Try to articulate a challenge you are facing and be mindful of the questions people ask you. They may seem basic, but there’s a reason that they are asking. Pick up on these cues and apply them into how you’re trying to solve your problem.

Articulate Your Thoughts — Written & Verbal

The hardest part about applying your imagination into something productive is putting it into a perspective that someone else can grasp or build on top. Have you ever had that feeling where something is so completely obvious in your head, but when you try to tell someone about it, they look at you in some variation of this?

What most of my attempts at describing my thoughts looks like.

It takes practice to try to articulate your thoughts into a way that can be understood by others, which is where imagination begins to take shape from abstract concept into concrete idea. When you can, try to share your thoughts, be it written or verbal. Be mindful about what sticks.

One of the best things about platforms like Medium is that they allow you to translate your thoughts into words and get engaged responses that can trigger your next series of thought experiments. We all have things on our mind, give a shot to writing down what’s on yours. You never know what change your imagination can spark.

Imagination is ultimately just one tool that we use in our world of building the products that people will interact with and then take on a life of their own. It is, however, a critical tool to instigate the concepts that trigger the next big idea.

Imagination is the foundation for new ideas, so we need to be mindful to overcome our tendencies to avoid it. To put it in the words of Albert Einstein:

An actual Albert Einstein quote, as told by Philosoraptor.