Years ago when I decided I wouldn’t be pre-med, my parents decided to encourage me to be pre-law.
I was willing to consider it, so I volunteered to intern at my county courthouse for a summer. (This was back when I was a teen; obviously I did not yet realize that graphic design is a legit profession.)
I learned a lot of things that summer. One was that I would not pursue law, a revelation that crept upon me over the months. Another was that I hated (HATED) wearing pantyhose…an insight that literally crept upon me every hour of every day. But the biggest lesson happened in a flash instance inside a judge’s office.
This judge was an exceptionally generous, humble human. Between court sessions, he’d summon me to his office to ask for my thoughts on the cases. He’d listen carefully and respond. As part of my internship, he arranged for me to visit the county jail. Afterwards, as usual, he asked for my impressions.
“Oh, I can’t imagine what it’d be like to stay there,” I said, shuddering. The windowless rooms, the greenish cast of the fluorescent lights, the scent of sanitized linoleum—it was no place to call home.
“No, no,” The judge corrected me immediately. “People like you and me, we MUST imagine. That is the hardest part of our work.”
I have never forgotten that lesson. Because it’s not limited to those in legal professions—it applies to anyone who has the power to create change. Anyone who has the privilege of an education. Anyone who is considered a leader or wants to be.
It’s tempting to brush off whatever disagrees with our worldview. It’s easy to scoff at those who “clearly” don’t understand something. It’s always an option to grumble, “I don’t understand why they do that/I can’t imagine being like that.” And walk away, back to the world you do understand.
Yet, your ability to imagine determines your ability to make a difference.
It’s obvious in some cases. If you care about a friend who has withdrawn into solitude, you’d immediately wonder what happened, try to understand more, and imagine what would help. But ultimately, as I believe the judge meant, this should be an internalized posture, a way of living.
So if you care about design and writing, it’s up to you to understand why people might be misinterpreting your graphic or revising your sentence. If you care about education, it’s on you to understand why someone hasn’t mastered your lesson yet and imagine what it takes to serve them—that’s where you’ll begin to resonate. If you care about climate change (or any other massive systemic issue), it’s your responsibility to try to understand why “the systems” are so slow to take action and imagine why a politician might resist “obvious” solutions—that’s where you can begin to shift a culture.
The biggest lesson I learned from the judge was ironically, not about making judgments. It’s about setting down the gavel and being generous enough to ask questions, especially about what we think we’re experts in already. Being humble enough to listen. And compassionate enough to imagine what hasn’t occurred to our minds.