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Last April, I had the opportunity to deliver a TEDx Talk in Pennsylvania. Here’s the talk:

There’s a deeply cultural idea that freedom and opportunity are the key ingredients to creativity. We use terms like “think outside the box” to describe the wild ones who abandon (or even blow up) the systems and make something new. We tend to view creative types as trailblazers going out and doing things that are radically different. In education, it’s the idea behind Genius Hour and un-schooling and open designs and personalized learning.

I see a place for space and freedom and opportunity. However, I’ve been thinking lately about the creative power of limitations. Instead of thinking outside the box, it’s the idea of repurposing the box. It’s the idea of working inside of systems in ways that people don’t expect. It is the notion that maybe the way to look forward is look backward and recover something that we lost.

It has me thinking about cities. I live in a place where buildings are regularly demolished and replaced by whatever the newest trend has to offer. It’s a place where growth continues to the furthest area of the wilderness; a city of massive, sprawling suburbs, each master planned to offer a better experience for homeowners. Phoenix is a place built on space and freedom and novelty. And yet, it is one of the least creative cities I have ever seen.

I contrast this to a city like Portland. It is a bastion of weird. It is a place packed with creative energy. And yet, Portland is a landlocked city where growth has to happen inside the box. It’s a place where old factories become artist lofts. It’s a city where an old church or school becomes a place with craft brew. Whereas Phoenix razes buildings to embrace novelty, Portland repurposes places while embracing all things vintage and hand-crafted.

In other words, Phoenix is a place of endless possibilities and the end result is an enormous, bland, sprawling master-planned city. Portland is a land of limitations and the end result is a bastion of creativity.

I get it. Portland isn’t for everyone. People mock it for all of its conspicuous and sometimes even pretentious hipsterhood. But it is also a place where creativity thrives due in large part to the fact that it is less about thinking outside the box and more about repurposing the box. It is a place where the limitations have becomes an asset and where being landlocked and anti-growth has led to a growth in creativity.

 

The Creative Power of Limitations

There’s a dominant thought in education that the best way to foster creativity is to simply leave students alone. Although I think this is true at times (I’m a fan of Genius Hour), I think there’s this opposite aspect of creativity that’s also true. It’s the idea that limitations are often the source of creative work.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Structure can create freedom: The narrative structure limits what the author can do. And yet, this very structure frees an author up to tell a better story. Similarly, the framework of the design thinking cycle limits what you can do in each phase of a project. However, it often becomes the
  • Restrictions can create freedom: This isn’t always true. There are times when restrictions are ridiculous. There are times when rules ruin everything. However, there are times when purposeful restrictions are what free us up to think divergently. This is the idea that you can look at the inherent restrictions of a given situation and ultimately create something better as a result.
  • Do more by doing less: The idea of “doing less” here is that sometimes minimalism leads to creative breakthroughs. It might be deliberately embracing fewer resources. It might be creating projects and products that are deliberately smaller. In school, I think it often looks like “more thinking and less work.”
  • A limited audience can become a global audience: This is the idea that sometimes the best way to reach a larger audience is to focus on a smaller audience. It’s not surprising that so many great works of literature were written with a smaller audience in mind.
  • Limit your schedule to get more done: I used to think that creative work was all about getting into a “creative mood” and then making something when I felt inspired. However, I’ve noticed that there’s a grind to creative work. The best songwriters write everyday. The best chefs develop recipes even when they don’t feel like it. The very limiting notion of a schedule and a deadline actually free us up to get more done.
  • Personal limitations can become our strengths: Although our Macgeyver projects seemed to be “high stakes,” they weren’t. There were no grades associated with them. Despite the time limit, students constantly made mistakes. In fact, the series of mistakes that students were allowed to make in those projects were what ultimately led to breakthroughs. This became a part of our classroom culture. It was the idea that personal limitations, whether it is a larger struggle or a smaller mistake, can lead to our greatest strengths.

This isn’t a call for more rules. I don’t think creative work has to be mechanical and rigid. Creative freedom is vital. We need to have a constant sense of slack in order for students to hit that place of flow. Moreover, in the midst of limitations, students need to have the freedom to screw up in order to feel comfortable taking risks. However, when we think about creative work, maybe it’s time that we though about the valuable role of creative constraint.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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