constraints

Overcoming the factors that often keep us from being creative

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Ultimately we are the thing which keeps us from being creative. We, ourselves, are only to blame.

Though excuses are plentiful, creativity by nature asks us to push past or through any excuse we may come up with. We overcome these excuses by maneuvering around constraints, ignoring status quo, or destroying expectations and even core beliefs.

This all makes sense, as the source of creativity in any event is always our own mind. That’s where we process everything in and around us, the world outside our minds exists, but it’s only by being processed within our brains that we come to understand and comprehend it (or don’t). Everything occurs within the mind, as David Eagleman so elegantly writes in his book Incognito:

”Your brain is encased in absolute blackness in the vault of your skull. It doesn't see anything. All it knows are these little signals, and nothing else. And yet you perceive the world in all shades of brightness and colors. Your brain is in the dark but your mind constructs light.

Because everything we think and believe and process takes place within our minds, the barriers or factors which inhibit our creativity are all within our minds too.

Our existing knowledge and experience, our ability to question and seek answers or pursue opportunity, our energy and taste for risk, our relationship to fear and doubt, all play a part in our ability to think creatively and have worthwhile ideas. Each exists in the form of bodily networks or systems, behaviors, habits, and beliefs.

When we feel stuck or hindered what we’re really feeling is uncertainty, fear, doubt, confusion, or simply an encounter with something we do not know how to move around (it’s worth noting that just because we can’t see a way around an obstacle does not mean there isn’t a way around it).

Undoubtedly there are factors outside ourselves that play a part in our ability to think creatively too, through their influence and affect on us. As an example: if you grew up in an environment which discouraged risk taking, question asking, or being open to change and differences, you’re much less likely to seek those things out as you age and mature. It just won’t be part of your “nature.”

Or if you spend all of your time and energy on familiar routines or efforts which benefit from the feelings of comfort and safety but detract from the hints which might otherwise motivate or inspire you, you’re unlikely to begin any pursuit of meaningful ideas. You’ll be fixated on what you know and what feels comfortable, less inclined to pursue even slightly risky endeavors; this despite the fact that a slight change to behavior or routine might yield hugely impactful insights to your perception of the world or the work you do.

As you can see, there are certainly factors outside ourselves which inhibit or otherwise influence our creativity. If we do not surround ourselves with inspiration or motivation—examples of the creative process in action—we may never feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to do those things too. If you never see someone think creatively, it’s hard to know how to do it yourself. If you never learn about something that’s possible, you may not think of it at all (let alone whether it’s impossible or not).

Still, in the end, it all—the inspiration and inhibition—take place within our minds. We are the central conductor with which the mind plays. And when it comes to creativity we are setting our own limits; no one else and nothing else can prevent us from “thinking differently” (with perhaps the exception of mental disability or disease).

All we need in order to embark on a creative pursuit is exactly that: think differently. Think in different terms, think of different tools, different modes of functioning, of seeing the world. And there are thousands of ways we can do this in any situation. (If you’re really stuck, I wrote a book filled with 150 challenges for thinking differently.)

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So, if this is all true, why do we not act creatively in everything we do? Why do we struggle to generate truly creative ideas when we need or want them most? Why aren’t we all creative, all the time?

The reality is that creativity isn’t always necessary, the process of thinking creatively will not always yield something worthwhile in a moment, and it’s often much easier to stick with what we know and how we’ve always thought than it is to try something differently.

Creativity requires energy and even then does not ensure an energetic return on investment. It took Edison and his team more than 1,000 iterations to find the perfect filament for the lightbulb. Henry Ford famously failed numerous times in his attempt to manufacture a car. Apple ended up building and selling a beautifully contained computer that consistently cracked and ultimately failed.

Then there’s the greatest factor which keeps us from pursuing creativity: fear. Fear of rejection, of embarrassment, or failure. Fear can prevent us from having being creatively driven, from even trying to think differently or to take a risk or to be open to experiences. Nobody wants to fail or to make mistakes, because those things hurt and can damage (temporarily or permanently) or reputation or ego. And because fear is such an ingrained part of human nature it’s often the most common blocker for exploring a new idea or pursuing a unique opportunity.

When I first started writing about creativity here on Creative Something (more than 11 years ago now!) I would often be asked to help someone whose boss or manager or peer wasn’t “allowing” them to be creative. I’d be told: “I want to do something creative but this other person isn’t letting me, they shut down every idea I have and I’m afraid if I try anything I’ll lose my job.” Or someone would email me saying: “I want to be creative at school but I don’t have anyway to express myself how I want to!”

My response to those types of messages comes down to what I started this post by stating: the only thing stopping you from being creative is you.

Someone told you that you couldn’t do a certain thing? So what, use that creative brain of yours and come up with an alternate plan. Unsure of how to move an idea forward? Try something, anything, and if that doesn’t work try something completely different. Not sure how to do something? Talk to others, read a unique book, break routine and go somewhere new to be inspired.

Nobody is stopping you from being creative but yourself.



Ideas love constraints

The painter must create within the boundaries of her canvas (or exhibit) using the tools and supplies she has available to her. The inventor works within the laws of time and space and motion. The architect designs within the realm of physics. The writer, the constraints of language and a static page.

It’s far too easy to use constraints as a reason to not try something creative.

Saying that your boss, teacher, or partner won’t let you do something, or that you don’t have the right tools or resources for the job, aren’t valid excuses when it comes to being creative, they’re merely the constraints you have to work within.

The artist doesn’t let a lack of fresh canvas debilitate her. She merely paints over the past work. The creative entrepreneur doesn’t let a lack of support or resources hinder him from starting a local drawing club. He sets it up as part of a local cafe weeknight and invites his closest friends. The writer doesn’t let the lack of ideas prevent them from writing almost every day. They merely sit down and write whatever comes to mind in the moment.

If you want to find an excuse not to create, or to ignore exploring an idea, that’s easy to do. But when you do use an excuse not to move on an idea, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

If every architect blamed gravity for their inability to make something awe-inspiring, we’d all be living in caves.

After-all, constraints are whatever we think they are.



Getting around creative constraints

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Constraints are a curious thing. Often they’re self inflicted, or even imagined. When we feel creatively stuck it’s either because the constraints we feel are too overwhelming are too restrictive, or because we’ve simply failed to see how temporary or fraud the constraints actually are.

A baby elephant who spends her life tied by rope to a small post in the floor will forever believe it is unmovable, even in her adulthood when her strength is 10x that of her younger self.

We, too, have ropes and posts in our lives which we become accustomed to.

We believe we can’t successfully start a business of our own because we wouldn’t know where to start, we’re not qualified. Qualifications to start anything in life are a rope and a post.

We feel stuck on a problem because it’s unfamiliar, daunting, and the risk of failing feels almost deadly. Risks are typically a rope and a post, particularly when it comes to creative endeavors.

If you want to embrace feeling stuck, because it’s comfortable and it’s all you’ve ever known, that’s ok. But the world is a really large place, one you can influence and change if you decide to.

And really that’s the thing about constraints, they’re only constraints if you decide they are. You’re stronger than you think. Sometimes you just have to push past what you perceive as boundaries and see what happens as a result. Even if that means writing with permanent marker on your work desk.

To get around constraints you can ask what would happen if you charged forward without regard to repercussions. Or ask others for their perspective. Or take a minute to step back and see why the constraints exist in the first place (and what exists just outside of them). Change the rules you’re playing by. And if you find yourself reaching the edge of your canvas, you should always feel entitled to write or paint or play just outside of it. The best insights always come when our work spills outside of the constraints.

What can you do if you viewed constraints as bendable, faux, or merely recommendations rather than rules?



What to do when you’re creatively constrained

Creativity means making the most of it.

It’s easy to blame a lack of creative inspiration or motivation on circumstance, but to do so is to forget that creativity is about curiosity, resourcefulness, and action.

Creativity takes no excuses.

“My boss doesn’t allow for new ideas,” is another way of saying “I can’t come up with a creative way to sell my ideas, to innovate.”

“My job is too restrictive,” is another way of thinking you’re stuck with the perspective of the work you’ve been instructed to pursue.

But like the painter looking at the edges of the canvas, the best ideas are built within constraints, by seeing what’s possible within the bounds. As Steven Johnson writes in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From:

“Good ideas are…inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them.”

Often the solution to feeling creatively restricted is more creativity.

If you’re feeling creatively constrained, look at the resources available to you, flip your perspective, ask for help, or challenge yourself to innovate in small steps. If you find yourself constantly restricted in what you can do with your ideas, take a step back and determine what it is within yourself that is making you feel so.

Lack of energy or interest in the work, not enough on the table, feelings of the effort being unappreciated, these are all ways we lose touch with our creativity and turn toward external excuses rather than trying to solve the issues themselves.

Maybe above all, always remember the wise words from Pixar’s Ed Catmull:

“When faced with a challenge, get smarter.”


How constraints can build creative inspiration

In the 1920s a vibrant Dutch painter set out his tools in front of him.

Because he was a painter, his tools were limited to canvases, paint, brushes, and a few various painting items. His constraints – these painting tools – were the same constraints that other painters of the time had to deal with. There were, of course, ways to create different types of artwork at the time, but those methods took away from the original purpose of painting.

To be creative, the painter would have to do something completely different. But how?

This painters name was Piet Mondrian, and his work has become widely popular since the early 1920s. How did Piet use creativity to improve his paintings and set a place in history for himself? He gave himself even more constraints.

Constraints are often viewed as negative aspects of problem solving. When you are placed into boundaries the first instinct is to kick and scream and say “how can I be creative if I can’t explore outside the rules?”

Interestingly, constraints can help spur creativity by forcing you to work on just a single focus, a solid goal. When you pile on constraints in exploration, you block out anything else that may take away from your focus. You allow yourself to really focus your area of inspiration, often discovering insights in the small crevices of your work that you otherwise wouldn’t have looked.

Piet Mondrian did just that with painting. He looked at his constraints – canvases and paints – and gave himself even more: only working with straight lines, 90-degree angles, and primary colors. The result: Piet helped to spur on a modernist approach to art and fuel the creation of Neo-Plasticism. His paintings are recognized around the world, even today.

If you’re feeling creatively stuck, try giving yourself more constraints. Limit yourself to only using verbs, draw out your ideas using only basic shapes, restrict yourself to painting only on a sliver of canvas, do anything that forces you to focus on the creation.

Constraints can feel overpowering, but it’s in the small area of space you have to work with that new insights can form.