The Imagined Self
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" How many times did we hear that as children and how many times have we asked children that question? It seems to be simple enough but if you unpick what it contains, (or often does not contain,) it is in fact very complex. The same applies for your or your organisation. What do you want them to be when they grow up?
So, let us look at this question a little more closely.
In order to answer it, you must have some concept of your imagined self and in order to do that you must have material to 'imagine' with. As a child I was very lucky as I was surrounded by stories and I was also an early reader. Books gave me a whole imagined world that I could inhabit and characters whose identities I could 'try on' for awhile, as I felt I could relate to them. In Britain we had Enid Blyton's 'The Famous Five' books. The five children, were always off on adventures with their dog and one of the girls was described as a 'tom-boy' (I hate the term but this was before the concept of gender fluidity!) who had curly hair. Her name was Georgina but she liked being called Georgie. I was a girl with curly hair who had a dog! Georgie was me and I was her. I identified with her and we went on those adventures together. Later I loved C.S Lewis and E Nesbit with their beautifully written fantasy worlds and magical possibilities. There was great sadness in their books too and difficult decisions but everything always seemed to work out ok. There was a 'happy ever after.' The stories and fairy tales I read provided me with a golden thread of hope that pulled me through some very dark times in the real world of my childhood and teenage years.
My interest in stories, especially old ones, led me to a love of history which led me to reading a lot of books on archeology and anthropology. At the age of 12 I wrote to Cambridge University to ask what qualifications I would need in order to study archeology there, I even got a letter back! The stories helped me believe that anything was possible, that a young girl from a working-class background who lived on a very rough council estate, could become an anthropologist studying at Cambridge University. I know that never happened, I never went to Cambridge University, I became a Play-worker and then a Storyteller and then became an International Narrative Consultant and the National Storytelling Laureate of the UK . The fact that it never happened is not important. The fact that I believed it could is. I had a whole range of 'imagined selves that I believed I could be. When you have that, you exist in two places at the same time. You exist in the future, seeing yourself there as that person and you exist in the present. That 'imagined self' has the power to pull you towards it. Many sports stars 'imagine' how they will run a race or take a shot and 'imagine' themselves as winners. The power of intention should not be underestimated.
So is this possible for everybody? When we ask any child - what do you want to be when you grow up? - can they imagine themselves as another self? Absolutely! We all have the ability to, but only if we are given opportunity to see ourselves as such. I was talking to one of my friends from Birmingham, an incredible Hip Hop artist with an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge. He was saying that as a young black child growing up in Birmingham, he struggled to identify with characters in stories. There were very few children's books in which black children were represented. He also did not see any real representation of people who looked like him in positive roles, on the news or in the newspapers etc. While he was experiencing this I saw white princesses and queens and kings and explorers and scientists and astronauts ....the list is endless. I remember working in Egypt and going to a children's bookstore that was filled with picture books of Disney Princesses with blond hair. I found one book that showed a women in a hijab. The lack of representation was a shock. I truly believe any child can have an imagined self that is filled with positive potential, if they are provided with the material to create it. Often in schools I see no visual representation of people who have disabilities or people of colour or women wearing hijab or dupatta. What images and dreams for the 'imagined self' are we providing or more importantly, denying for the children in our care? I feel that non-representation is as damaging as mis-representation and that all educational institutions should be aware of this.
In relation to organisational development and change, the concept of the 'imagined self' is just as crucial. Many of the organisations I have worked with often only see their future imagined self as bigger and making more profit. Growth, growth, growth! If you look at the most successful companies and their founders, what drove them towards success was not growth and profit but having a powerful story and vision that they believed passionately in.
Steve Jobs spoke about doing something that 'makes your heart sing.' He always said he wanted to make a positive difference to the world. His friend and colleague John Sculley said Jobs was never in it for the money. Steve Jobs also created the concept of the 'reality distortion field' whereby he made people believe they could achieve the impossible. I would say he gave them powerful 'imagined selves.' Oprah Winfrey never set out to make millions. She went from reporter, to anchor person, to a chat show host for a T.V network in Chicago. While hosting one show, she saw a woman brutally humiliated and decided she would set up her own show and that she would be here to, "raise the level of consciousness. To connect people to ideas and stories so that they can see themselves and lead better lives." Again I would say that she offers people a powerful and positive range of 'imagined selves.'
So as organisations what 'imagined selves' do you offer your employees? That is where your potential and power lies. What 'imagined selves' do you offer your customers and how are you making them the heroes in their own stories and in yours?
I would say that we all aspire to be more than we are, to earn recognition of some sort, make a difference somehow, have a good story that remains after we have gone. My question to you as leaders, (and by leaders I mean anyone who is involved in helping others, whether it be children, employees or family develop) is what stories are you providing to help people do this? How are you helping them create a powerful Imagined Self?