#499  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 11          November 2000

The Freeing Effect of Limitations
by Rochelle Newman-Carrasco

Ms. Newman-Carrasco is CEO of Enlace Communications, Inc., a Los Angeles based advertising and communications firm specializing in targeting the US Hispanic consumer (phone 310-440-5363; fax 310-472-4099; rochelle@enlacecomm.com). She is a playwright, stand-up comic and lecturer on the subject of creativity. www.enlace.com


"Think outside the box."
"The skyís the limit."
"Anything goes."
"There are no bad ideas."
"Donít hold back"

Creative freedom. Isnít that what itís all about? No rules. No systems. No perspiration. Just inspiration. Isnít that what separates great creative thinkers from us mere mortals? Think again. Would it surprise you to discover that limitations are what provide the friction that generates the energy from which great ideas are born? "Friction?" you say. "But isnít creativity meant to be stress-free and without any blocks or boundaries?" Actually, creating requires resistance since most creativity comes from a "need." And, more often than not, thereís an obstacle preventing that need from being met.

Myth Information

Sadly, there has been a lot of "myth-information" about the subject of creativity. And, like many myths, we have come to accept them as truths. As a result, we latch on to these ideas and believe that, given all the freedom in the world, the failure to create is a personal failure. We blame ourselves when we are unable to come up with new ideas or are unable to motivate others to be creative. But, in fact, we are not to blame. We are simply ďmyth-informedĒ and need some creative guidance and discipline--the kind actors use when they vigorously rehearse a play, musicians use when they study scales over and over again, and poets use when they limit themselves to a defined structure of verse. The first challenge we face, is to allow ourselves to "exhale," letting go of existing notions and allowing room to fill our brains back up with new ways of looking at old familiar things. Take a deep breath right now. In order to allow new air in, what do you have to do? Exhale, right? (OK you can exhale.) Get the message? New ideas only come in when you let a few old ones out.

Letís look at the myths. Youíve probably heard most of them:

Myth #1: The creative process is magical and canít be explained.
Myth #2: Rules are the enemy of creativity.
Myth #3: Creativity is only for dreamers and people who would rather play than work.
Myth #4: Creativity should be tension-free.
Myth #5: The key to creativity is thinking outside the box.

Letís focus on the last one--thinking outside the box.  Highly overrated when you stop to consider the roles boxes have played in creative arenas like theater, the arts, and advertising.  For what is the stage, the page, the canvas or the TV if not various forms of boxes Ė inside of which some of the greatest creative ideas have been conceived and captured. Boxes are a creativeís best friend, for they provide a framework. And, to quote the poet T.S. Eliot, "When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost ≠ and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl."

Thinking Inside The Box


When things are left too open, vague and ambiguous; when the creative process lacks the right degree of definition and specifics, the mind wanders down destructive rather than constructive paths. Rather than attack a creative problem and seek a creative solution, it searches for meaning, enters a state of worry, which ultimately leads to one of creativityís greatest inhibitors of all--the dreaded procrastination. Ironically, freedom to come up with anything is more likely to translate into fears that lead to coming up with nothing.

When one approaches creativity as "an open field," as opposed to a discipline defined by selective rather than random thinking, another creativity inhibitor raises its ugly head. Judging voices enter the picture. Whether they are the critics in your head (often voices of parents, teachers and others from our past) or the critics in your office, they are certain to prey on vulnerable minds floating in a black hole of endless possibilities.

If you get a blank piece of paper and are instructed to draw "something" or "anything" or "whatever pops into your head," how do you feel? How about if you get that same piece of paper and youíre asked to draw a picture of your favorite memory from your last vacation? How does that feel? Sure, those of us that donít draw hate the whole exercise. But, if you put drawing ability aside, it is common to feel less anxiety, less confusion and less self doubt when the instructions include information about the subject matter. By adding that one piece of information, no one is taking away anyoneís creativity. No one is saying exactly what you need to draw or how you need to draw it or what the picture should or shouldnít have in it. You are simply being given some limitations so that you can work toward a goal and so that creative energy can be generated as you immediately begin to search your mindís eye for the memory you would like to draw and the techniques you want to use to illustrate that moment.

So, donít be afraid of boxes. Just remember, they are three dimensional. They have depth, width and height, all of which are there to be explored. So, rather than thinking outside of the box, how about thinking inside of the box for a change? Remember, being creative isnít about staying on the surface because itís safe and familiar. Itís about diving in and making choices of inclusion and exclusion.

Magic or Manageable?


As you think about the other myths, remember that while it is true that creation is magic, the creative process is manageable. To put it simply, we remain in awe of the miracle of birth but we are pretty clear on the kind of work we need to do (or fun we need to have) if we plan to make a baby. And, in terms of there being no rules, remember that great creatives study principles and master the form. Breaking the rules requires knowing them by heart. Read about Leonardo DaVinci or other creative minds for further understanding of how much discipline and respect for structure it takes to free your mind to create. Ask any truly creative individual and they will assure you that creativity is as much about work as it is about play.

So, the next time youíre asked to "get creative," find a way for the group to "get specific." Work with a creative brief. Send out some information in advance of a brainstorming session with background and objectives. Work with exercises that can help a group focus their efforts on a common goal. Bring some limitations into the process so that people can be productive and really have some fun.

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©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.