Intentional Restraint

When it comes to creativity, it’s common for people to equate it with the idea of abundance—an abundance of materials, time, and other resources is easily seen as an effective prompter of fresh ideas and innovative solutions. An artist given a wealth of art supplies and provisions must be in wonderland, possessing the highest chances of turning out a uniquely crafted masterpiece. That’s often what we want, even in this book!

A chef provided with a huge variety of the best ingredients is imagined as having everything needed to churn out an inspired dish. The prevalent idea is that the more that is loaded into the creative’s arsenal, the better the output will be. The more ideas and freedom, the better your chance to generate a solution to your problems.

But is that the best method to solve problems or the best way to spur the flow of fresh ideas and solutions? There is a big difference between the two.

  • Creating intentional constraints can force creativity because they require innovation to make something work. It necessitates deviation from the norm, and forces you to rearrange, rethink, repurpose, and reimagine things so basic as definitions and boundaries. There are numerous examples provided, such as dealing with copyright violations, but it can be as simple as asking “What if we had to do things in this certain way?” You’d find a way that is counterintuitive and exploratory by necessity.
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Use Intentional Constraints

Compared to piling on the resources and broadening options, putting up constraints and limiting resources appear to spark creativity better. Psychologist and creativity expert Patricia Stokes of Columbia University has seen such a principle at work in an experiment she conducted in 1993. Her study demonstrated how rodents constrained to press a bar using only their right paws resulted in those rodents devising more creative ways of pressing the bar compared to rodents that were free to use all their limbs.

This is what’s known as “little ‘c’ creativity,” a form of creativity aimed at addressing practical problems rather than yielding artistic output. And with the number and complexity of emerging 21st-century problems needing resourceful solutions in the face of scarcity, little “c” creativity may be the next big thing.

To test how people’s creative use of resources may be influenced by thinking about scarcity or abundance, Ravi Mehta and Meng Zhu conducted a study using “the bubble wrap test” in 2015. They predicted that thinking about scarcity would boost people’s capacity to use resources in unconventional ways.

To test that prediction, Mehta and Zhu randomly divided sixty undergrads into two groups. One group was instructed to write an essay about growing up with scarce resources, while the other group was to write about growing up with abundant resources. Both groups were then tasked to come up with a solution for a real problem their university faced: how to put to good use 250 bubble wrap sheets that were byproducts of a recent move of their computer lab.

After drafting a proposal for using the bubble wrap, the participants answered a survey on the different ways they tackled the problem. Twenty judges, blind to the participants’ scarcity or abundance groupings, then scored the proposals in terms of the novelty of the ideas they put forward. The result? The scarcity group outperformed the abundance group in coming up with creative uses for the discarded bubble wrap.

The outcome of Mehta and Zhu’s experiment reveals a counterintuitive but valuable point in the science of creativity—that sometimes, in order to force the mind to think outside the box, it is necessary to first make that box smaller and smaller, reining in the mind with fewer and fewer options so it has no choice but to reconstruct those options in unconventional ways. In other words, creativity appears to be less of an inborn personality trait and more of a response to environments and situations that compel the person to make the best use of whatever resource is available.

Say you’re part of a marketing team tasked to come up with a print ad promoting your new product. If you were told you can fill an entire magazine with promotional information about your product, chances are you’ll end up with something that may be highly informative and detailed, but overloaded with irrelevant details that will only bore prospective consumers instead of enticing them to buy your merchandise.

But if you deliberately constrain your ad to, say, a quarter of a page, your team is likely to generate vastly more interesting and eye-catching ad ideas. Precisely because you are given so little space to work with, you’ll be forced to come up with the catchiest of taglines and the most striking of images to get your product noticed.

The following are more examples of how creative constraints can give rise to impressive solutions to the problems in front of you.

Six-word memoirs.

Can an entire life be summed up in just six words? The book Not Quite What I Was Planning proves that the answer is yes—and with results ranging from the amusing to the profound, too. While traditional memoirs are often thick volumes filled with elaborate details and analysis of a life’s beginnings, highlights, and struggles, Not Quite What I Was Planning breaks such a mold by showcasing a collection of six-word memoirs. Interesting examples include Stephen Colbert’s “Well, I thought it was funny” and Linda Williamson’s “Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult.” How about you? How would you sum up your life in six words?

As this creative venture shows, setting constraints on your projected output can lead to interesting results. Putting parameters on what you’re allowed to produce—in this case, no more than six words to encapsulate an entire life—forces your brain to be more imaginative so as to meet the parameters without sacrificing the output’s meaningfulness. Without such constraints on expected output, you’ll be more likely to stick to just comfortable yet uninteresting solutions.

But introduce constraints, and you’re on your way toward generating creative ideas you didn’t imagine you had in you to produce.

Career-ending injury.

They say every dark cloud has a silver lining. Artist Phil Hansen has proven that right, though he had to do more than just spot the silver lining. He had to suffer the dark cloud for years, then decide to create its silver lining. Phil had developed a specific pointillist style all throughout his years as an art student, but unfortunately met an injury that rendered him incapable of practicing the same technique ever again. Distraught and hopeless, he left the art world.

But though Phil tried to leave the artist in him behind, he later found that nothing could take the artist out of him. Three years later, he started to dabble in the arts again. But constrained by the repercussions of his injury, he had to develop a new art style that incorporated the shaky lines his quivering hands couldn’t help but make. Embracing rather than resenting the constraints that his injury had put on him, Phil was thus led to craft unique and amazing art pieces only he could create—not despite his injury but because of it.

Phil’s story illustrates how even limitations in personal capacity can serve as the trigger to produce more creative and unique outcomes. Not being able to do things in the same way you’ve always done them may be a hard pill to swallow, but in certain situations, that may be the very push you need to be more creative and discover new (often better) ways of doing things.

Another prime example of this is gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. He was a seemingly normal guitarist until he was involved in a caravan accident involving a fire. Two of his fingers on his left hand, the important hand of a guitarist, were damaged so badly from burns that they were paralyzed and nearly amputated. Despite this, Reinhardt re-taught himself to play the guitar with 60 percent of a normal person’s capacity (only three out of five fingers) and became renowned for his innovative playing.

If you find yourself constrained by your own incapacity to do things a certain way, take it as a challenge to change the way things have always been done. With this perspective, you’ll be able to come up with ideas that may not just get things done, but revolutionize how they’re accomplished.

Copyright restrictions.

Poets are artists of their own kind, wordsmiths who gather their material from the seemingly endless constellation of words available to them at any given time. But what if even words are given to a poet in a limited fashion? Will that limit the poet’s creativity or enhance it?

In the case of artist Austin Kleon, such constraint definitely boosts creativity. Known for his newspaper blackout poems, Kleon takes a newspaper page or column and then blacks out words using a marker until only his own poem or message is left visible. In addition to the limited words he has to work with, Kleon also has copyright restrictions to consider because he’s using printed material written by someone else.

Needing to work in accordance with copyright law, Kleon is thus driven to creatively flesh out poems that either reverse, parody, or completely differ from the original message of the newspaper piece. Rather than limiting inspiration or originality, in Kleon’s case, restrictions thus have the effect of spurring imagination and creativity.

As Kleon’s inspired works illustrate, restricting the materials available for you to work with can get your creative juices flowing and lead you to produce remarkable output. While Kleon’s materials were words, yours may be a host of different resources, including money, product supplies, tools, and other provisions. What Kleon’s process proves is that limiting those resources doesn’t necessarily have to equal to a decline in creativity.

On the contrary, by having no choice but to make use only of what’s already available in short supply, you’re forcing yourself to think outside the box. Precisely because you have such limited resources, it’s your imagination that has to fill the gap by stretching itself to discover innovative solutions and ideas