Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report
If someone challenged you to write a book but made the maximum word limit only 50 words, do you think you could do it?
Theodor Seuss Geisel was given exactly that creativity challenge by his editor, and the result became one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. Geisel wrote under the name Dr. Seuss, and that book was Green Eggs and Ham.
Is it a coincidence that his most successful book resulted from the challenge?
It’s an idea that’s been in the air for a while, but recently became a confirmed scientific hypothesis called The Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis of Creativity. Using experimental methods, scientists tested the hypothesis and learned that constraints actually fuel creativity.
When painting, limit yourself to certain colors or focus on a series of still-life representations of objects in your home.
Creative Limits in Art, Music and Business
Cubist painter Georges Braque, who considered limits in art to be vital, had exactly this idea in mind when he said in 1947: “Progress in art does not lie in extending its limits, but in knowing them better.”
Likewise, in music, composer Igor Stravinsky in 1956 noted that “the more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.”
And Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, wrote in 2006 that, “Creativity thrives best when constrained.” She was also one of the earliest employees at Google and the minimalist look of Google’s home page was apparently her idea.
Contemporary and historical examples of limits sparking creativity abound, but what can we learn from the science behind the Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis?
The ‘Tyranny of Choice’ at Work
To start, consider what has become popularly known as “the tyranny of choice.” Even though we might think that having lots of options is better than not, science has shown that having too many options can not be overwhelming. In fact, it can actually have a negative impact on creativity, according to research done on creative problem-solving going back to the mid-1980s.
In fact, brainstorming — a popular method in organizations to try and jump-start creativity by bubbling up ideas — has been shown to be ineffective, unless, that’s right, constraints are put into place in the form of rules for the brainstorming process.
So how can you take advantage of constraints to spur creativity and improve problem-solving?
For Creativity, Know Your Canvas
Take a cue from jazz. Consider this, from the scholarly article published in Music Perception, “How Jazz Musicians Improvise” by P.N. Johnson-Laird: “Musicians do not have total freedom. There are harmonic and rhythmic constraints on improvisations. Much of the hard work in learning to improvise consists in acquiring a tacit mastery of these constraints.”
There are many choices, even with constraints, for musicians, artists, and writers. But constraints — in the form of the rules surrounding a genre or even in arbitrary rules such as “tell me a story in only 50 words” — provide a canvas, a constraint itself, defined by its shape and area.
In other words, know your canvas. The better you know it, the more tools you have available to unleash your creativity in any endeavor.
Six Ideas for Sparking Creativity Via Limits
Here are six ideas for using limits to spark creativity across media and genre:
- Want to write a story? Try writing what’s known as “flash fiction,” or stories that are fewer than 1,000 words. This is a great format for pushing the boundaries of what you can do in fiction. Throw in additional constraints, such as writing the story in present tense, second person: “You sit down to write a story. You don’t know where to start. You decide to begin at the end.”
- Paint? Limit yourself to certain colors or focus on a series of still-life representations of objects in your home. Make it a rule that the light source has to come from a different angle for each painting.
- Play music? Try re-imagining a song you’re familiar with. You can find all kinds of examples of this on the Internet, including this one of middle-schoolers playing a Led Zeppelin medley entirely on xylophones or an innovative cover of the recent hit song “Somebody that I Used to Know” with five people all playing one guitar. Talk about a constraint!
- In the conference room at work, create rules for brainstorming sessions, such as only allowing two ideas per person and limiting each idea to five words.
- To experience other ways that constraints can bolster creativity, consider getting involved in the 48 Hour Film Project, National Novel Writing Month, 24-Hour Short Story Contest and other similar contests for writing songs or creating art.
- To get a real taste of utilizing your creativity within constraints, try writing, directing and staging a play and make it even more challenging by adding a twist that will force you to think outside the box, like making it about what happens when “Picasso and Einstein meet at a bar in Paris.” (Actually, comedian Steve Martin already did that in Picasso at the Lapin Agile, but you get the idea.)
Think Outside the Box — Literally
The phrase “think outside the box” is popularly considered to originate with the 9-Dot Puzzle. Make a box consisting of nine dots and then connect all nine dots with four lines without lifting your pen or pencil off the paper. Using only four lines, and not lifting your pen from the paper are the constraints. The only way to do this is to connect some of the dots with lines that extend beyond the imaginary boundaries of the box created by the dots. The constraints force you to think “outside the box.” In other words, creatively (and probably having fun).
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