The Incredible Power of Constraints

In 1960, a well-known author accepted a $50 bet to write a children’s book using only 50 words. He could repeat them, but the unique words could only total 50. The author was Dr. Seuss and the book was Green Eggs and Ham. Today, the book has sold upwards of 8 million copies. It is a global hit, and it was born out of a challenge to restrict the author’s resources. This constraint required Dr. Seuss to choose each word deliberately and use each one creatively. The practice was so useful to him that he continued to implement constraints while writing subsequent books.

While it may seem paradoxical, creating constraints around your work can boost your performance. Imagine having limitless time and money. How difficult would it be to complete something? Why would you sign off on a project when you could continue to throw time and resources at it? On the other hand, if you have a set amount of time and money you are willing to contribute, you will not only search for ways to creatively use those resources, but you will eventually complete your project. You have to — you have no other choice.

Have you ever had so many choices that you’ve been unable to make a decision? Analysis paralysis is inaction due to overanalyzing and second-guessing the many different possible outcomes. Think about when you’ve gone to a restaurant and there are too many items on the menu and too many beers on tap that you fear you’ll make the wrong selection. This paralysis makes decisions — and therefore forward motion — nearly impossible

Constraints have the opposite effect: when you only have five materials for an art project, when you only have 50 words for a book, when you only have $500 to build a website, you must think differently in order to make progress. And as seen with Green Eggs and Ham, creating constraints can lead to great success.

Constraints create pathways

Author and entrepreneur James Clear shares a great example of the power of constraints in his post about a game originated in Uraguay called futsal, which looks like soccer but has a lot more constraints, including smaller fields, fewer players, and a smaller ball. These restrictions require different footwork than that of soccer, and many of the children who played this sport (particularly in Brazil, where futsal migrated in the 1930s and 1940s) grew up to be spectacular soccer players, having learned at a young age how to get creative with their ball handling.

The shell of this story can be applied to countless other successes. This Fast Company article by writer and developer Belle Beth Cooper includes seven success stories created out of constraints, including companies, designers, and artists. One such artist is Phil Hansen, someone we at Studio/E had the opportunity to meet recently for his presentation about embracing his limitations and achieving success.

Phil used to be a pointillist, creating big art pieces out of thousands of tiny dots. Through repetition of this art form, Phil developed a tremor in his hand. He was devastated, dropped out of art school, and left art altogether for a few years. The tremor was a cause of permanent nerve damage developed from the same movement over and over. Upon learning this, Phil did something incredible: he decided to embrace his limitation and pursue a different kind of art. Instead of repetitive miniature dots, Phil began using all sorts of different materials to make art on a grand scale. He dipped the sides of his hands in paint and karate chopped a portrait of Bruce Lee; he made Mother Theresa out of hundreds of dandelion puffs. Phil’s work flourished once he learned about his constraints.

Constraints, or what we call boundaries when self-imposed, act as pathways because they illuminate your handful of options (as opposed to innumerable choices that often exist without constraints). Similar to Dr. Seuss, Phil began to produce better, more creative, and more interesting work than he’d ever done before, all because his pathway became clearer.

Take a look at the image below. This is a portrait of Frida Kahlo made from the shadows of four painted plates of glass. Individually, the plates of glass make up no discernable form (you can see these clearly in the image at the top of this post). But together they create a beautiful, realistic, and jaw-dropping image. How creative! How much talent! And how completely different.

Know when it’s not working

Bestselling author Seth Godin wrote a book in 2007 that remains relevant today, and it has to do with the difference between those who keep going and those who quit. The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) makes the statement early on that the old adage, “winners never quit and quitters never win,” is wrong. What differentiates the winners from the so-called losers is that winners know when to quit, and they do it often. Winners quit mediocre ideas in order to pursue the right ideas. The Dip is the time when you’re pursuing your craft and you begin to question if the work is worth it, if you’re good enough, and if it is the right path; it’s when you consider if you should keep going or quit.

Too often, people keep going on mediocre ideas, leading to mediocre businesses and pieces of art. In addition, people often quit because it’s hard, but if they would have kept going just a bit more, they’d have come out on the other side. The other side is where the few, the scarce, reside. The one-of-a-kind, best in the world kind of people. People like Dr. Seuss and Phil Hansen. Phil almost didn’t make it through the Dip. When his work got tough (impossible, in fact), he quit pointillism — and he nearly quit art altogether. But he came out on the other side when he decided to pursue a new artform. An art form, and a corresponding inspirational story, which led him to a TED Talk, speaking gigs, and notable commissions like the official image for the Grammy Awards.

identify constraints, mind the dip, and prosper

Creating limitations for yourself can make your work flourish — but it’s important to make sure you’re working on the right ideas.

“The biggest obstacle to success in life,” Godin says, “as far as I can tell, is our inability to quit these curves soon enough.” Fortunately, Phil Hansen didn’t try to force his hand to continue to create tiny dots and keep his art going. Instead, he embraced his shake, he quit the wrong path, and he began to create his greatest work yet.

Nobody can tell you when to quit and when to keep going; that’s up to you. What people like Dr. Seuss and Phil Hansen can tell you, however, is that the right work might come to you if you put some constraints in place.

If you need ideas for constraints (at Studio/E, we call them boundaries. Phil calls them limitations. The word doesn’t matter; the meaning does), here are easy ways to begin:

  • Choose a number of materials: words, art supplies, people, etc.;
  • Cap your monetary investment;
  • Identify the maximum amount of time you will spend working on any given project.

If you’re not used to putting boundaries around your work, try testing it out on something low-stakes. See how your thinking changes. If it doesn’t work out, don’t be afraid to quit. (Godin harshly says if you’re not going to make it to number one, quit and pursue something else.) And remember: winners are quitters of the wrong ideas and pursuers of the right ones. You’ll know when you’re working on the right idea, have faith in yourself and don’t be afraid to explore your boundaries.

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Photos by Frank Denney

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