Aug 112013


Embrace restrictions to explore new creative paths.

We often think that when it comes to the creative process we need to take a “the sky is the limit” approach where everything and anything goes, without any restriction. In this post, I would like to object to the contrary.

If you were like me as a child, I disliked the essays that we had to write in elementary school where there was no mandated topic. Either by lack of imagination or maybe out of kindness, the teacher would ask us to write an essay on any topic we wished to talk about. I always struggled with those assignments because I would start writing on a topic, put down a few sentences, and then wished that I started on another more-interesting-after-all topic instead, to eventually move on to yet another topic, etc… In the end, I often ended up with a few half-baked drafts not worth sharing.

The problem was the lack of restrictions. When there was a topic, it felt like I could dive into it and explore it more thoroughly and offer more insightful ideas.

Don’t follow the path of least mental resistance

When faced with a problem requiring creativity, our lazy brains tends to follow the path of least mental resistance. Sure, we might find a solution, but is it really the best solution or even the right solution? More often than not,  the solution falls short of being optimal because we fail to have enough restrictions or requirements for it in order to focus the outcome.

A few years back, I challenged myself to “be a vegetarian for a year”, i.e. I restricted my diet to not eat meat (I was actually ovo-lacto, pescetarian, for the purists out there). As a result of such restriction, one would think that my diet became bland and unimaginative, but the opposite actually happened: I started exploring foods that I never tried before because I was previously stuck on “I must have meat” mode. Adding restrictions created a new void and forced me to try alternatives that I would have probably never tried before. It expanded my culinary palette and made me a more adventurous and more creative foodie.

Restrictions compel some creative responses from the brain

Restrictions compel some creative responses from the brain to find a way around them. It’s often self-imposed restrictions/constraints used by artists (choice of medium), musicians (limited choices of instruments, arrangements, etc…), poets (sonnet, haiku, limerick), writers (see Georges Perec’s 300-page novel “La Disparition” written without the letter “e”) and architects (material, site) that engender masterpieces.

Now I’m not saying that restrictions are fun and easy. They require more brain-power and more patience because they force us to abandon the aforementioned path of least mental resistance. Despite the pain, some people claim that it’s the only way that they can be creative and they actually welcome or even induce those restrictions. How many of us waited for the very last night before an essay was due before starting to work on it? I’m not saying that a self-induced time restriction is the way to go but some people thrive on it.

Restrictions forces us to explore new opportunities and escape the ordinary

So, don’t see restrictions as a limitation of your choices but as a shift of choices. Don’t view restrictions as a curse but rather as a chance to explore new opportunities and go down less-traveled roads, and as a welcomed challenge to stretch your creative muscles beyond the traditional and the escape the ordinary, in order to produce something truly innovative.


[Photo Credit: photo taken along highway 89, between Page, AZ and Zion NP]

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