Limiting Yourself Can Boost Creativity

When I was growing up, my mother would say, “Look at Picasso’s early work. He knew how to paint conventionally. Then he came up with his own style. But the early work tells you that the later work was the result of his talent and vision, not the result of someone who couldn’t paint shapes correctly.”

In college, I had a seminar class led by a professor who would only accept two-page papers. He said that if we couldn’t make and support an argument in that amount of space, we hadn’t focused our topics enough.

A few years later, I worked on a print project that had specific space limitations. The freelancer said, “I can’t be creative if you’re going to be that strict.” I pointed out that all work is done within certain parameters, and that I thought she could do a great job within the ones we had. Lo and behold, she delivered.

I was reminded of all of this as I read Seth Godin’s post about embracing constraints. As he says, “Once you can thrive in a world filled with constraints, it’s even easier to do well when those constraints are loosened.”

There’s a lot of validity to this. Identify your goals and find ways to meet them. If you can do this when your resources are limited, then you’re really developing your skills and thinking creatively about challenges and solutions. If you can create something beautiful by coloring within the lines, you’re going to be much better able to choose how to color outside them.


Posted on July 20, 2011, in Work and Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great post. I think that we’re all bound by limitations of some sort. As a writer, it’s usually knowledge and insight. I’m not sure about artists, but I would think there are similar problems to get over.

  2. I realize this is not a competition, but this is a much more useful post on the topic than Mr. Godin’s.

    I also wonder if the professor came up with that explanation for the two-page-paper rule before or after he realized it would result in a much more manageable workload for him when it came to grading your assignments. (That said, although you didn’t mention what the course was about, I assume he was generally correct and I’d buy his logic.)

    • Wow! Thanks–that’s great to hear. And regarding the professor, I’m sure it did lower his workload. That can’t have hurt. But we were a seminar class of about 12, and it did make sense for the way the rest of the course was structured.

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