Why Limits Provoke Success

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Have you ever walked into a room that needed to be cleaned so badly that when you looked at it, you just stood there and couldn’t move?

The task was that daunting.

I’ve found the same emotion when presented with a “limitless canvas.”

As creators , the infinite world of possibilities is what we all dream of being presented with. But, in fact, it can be the most daunting, paralyzingly perplexing scenario of all.

If anything is an option, how do you decide where to start? And if any result is acceptable, how do you define when you’re done? These are the questions I find most creators are plagued with, no matter the medium or context.

Sure, unrestrained creativity sounds exciting. And in certain aspects, it is. But placing limits on our actions can actually more liberating than we might think.

Take, for example, the sheer joy expressed on a child’s face when you tell them they can paint a picture using only his fingers and the three colors you set out in front of him. Or a telling a writer she can pen anything, but using only 1,000 words in 60 minutes.

While it might seem the creative process has been restricted, the limits have actually interjected a much-needed element to the creative process: challenge.

The reality is, as humans, we do much better with limits than we do without them. Creation without challenge is an exercise in lethargy. It might be argued, in fact, that the presence of a challenge ignites creativity. It brings out the best in us.

Time frame.

Monochromatic.

Word count.

Time signature.

Budget.

Mode.

Ensemble head count.

Disability.

These all force us to be more creative within the parameters than we ever would be without them.

So the next time you don’t know where to start, try putting limits on your process. You might find it more liberating than your logic suggests, as disability always promotes capability.

ch:

I’m curious. What are some of your favorite creative limits that have helped you produce some of your best work?

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  • http://www.mikekim.tv Mike Kim

    Man, THANK YOU for putting this creative tension into words. One of those things I’ve always felt and never articulated or thought deeper about.

    Yes, sometimes the blank canvas is exhilarating…most of the time I find it scary. A song with no end goal, a post with no point. Here’s some of what I’ve done:

    – write titles (to songs, blog posts etc.) before anything else
    – write a song in a different meter or BPM
    – set a timer to 15 minutes to create content, after that only proofing is allowed
    – no writing on my laptop, only on a notepad. Surprised how well this works.

    Though I don’t illustrate much anymore, I also recall this time my art teacher made me do a whole piece only using my left-hand. It was frustrating yet challenging, and probably the most evocative drawing I’d ever done. You could see the struggle in the lines. It taught me alot about perfectionism vs. emotion in art…spilled over into alot of other areas.

    Brilliant post, bro.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Great stuff! I especially relate to the “title creation” strategy. I find it helps me stay on point, and create tight, well-reasoned arguments when trying to establish a point. I always find myself checking back with the title. “Is my post/song/piece worthy of the title?”

      Thanks for the encouragement too.

    • julie

      AWESOME POST CHRISTOPHER & TRUE!!!! THANK YOU!!!

      I have found that it is when I am brought to the end of me, when HE makes my possibilities… endless. Where I end – God begins to use me like a vessel; a piece of clay to it’s fine silver, pen & ink brought to life on paper & then type on a keyboard, or even His hands, feet, heart, and prayerfully His mouth to His people as in such a way for such a time. But I have also found a greater blessing & much more instruction from the broken vessel; that perfectly imperfect fine art, that living testimony that sometimes barely resembles life or finds its way in print, or waiting, still waiting, for the promised gift of that evangelical birthday.

      My challenge in everything is to remember that I have “a choice” to accept “the challenge”~ first one being to Him in all things ~ and then the rest. I don’t particularly like being told “no”, wearing a harness, my tongue bridled, having a clock held over my spirit, or that I should alter what I’ve “dreamed up” only for the purpose of creative differences, but I now relish in the fact that God takes it over & I believe that whatever comes from this creative discipline will be that much greater having followed by the way of trust & obedience. I know He has my best interests in mind and at heart. <3

      Thanks again Christopher for a very creative & inspiring post! It makes one think even when one doesn’t want to. ;)

      [Umm…I suddenly have a desire to finger paint. 8-) ]

      May the LORD BLESS you indeed Christopher and enlarge your creativity…
      ~ julie

      AND… THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU MIKE KIM! I was actually told, among others, at a local leadership conference which involved "writing" that the title should be the last thing I do. This has messed me up since then. "The title" or theme is the very thing the Lord gives me to inspire the whole post or chapter, so every time I'd jump up to write, my mind would divide to that former instruction and a wedge was formed. I, like Christopher, would always divert back to the original title [or in my case message] throughout the work, to weigh its worthiness & inclusion in the piece. Did I say "THANK YOU!" 8-)

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Well said. I love the part about choosing to take up the challenge. That’s so spot on.

      I find there to be such power when my artistic or creative vision is vetted by others; it produces such superior products that I rarely create things without a team involved in some capacity or another.

      Thanks for the great comment, Julie!

  • Matt Harris

    Well said again. :) I posted the other day that the creative thinker will never have enough time to bring to life all of the ideas that come. I think it’s important to recognize the stronger ideas and pursue them with focused intensity. Have a way of filling the others in your brain. One of the problems many artist have is organizing and bringing ideas to life. There is a joy that comes from God when we are disciplined enough to channel our energy in a specific direction to bring to life something that wasn’t before. Music, sculpture, words, images, all powerful means to communicate in. Time for a creative army to arise. I’m doing my part with hammer in hand :)

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Great thoughts, Matt! Thanks for the contribution. Wished I lived closer so I could see you forge (literally) “somethings” out of “nothing.”

      I’ve been learning that the power of my 100 No’s is that I get to excentuate an emphatic Yes.

  • Matt Harris

    Some of the best art I’ve created started out with no limits, and the limits came to life with the work

  • kimberlee

    Wow, you put into words that truth that hovers over all of our activity!
    As a fiction writer, when I finish a book and look to my folder of outlines, it takes me ages to decide which one to use! I cannot even express the deliberation that harnesses the days and weeks of browsing that folder. I often end up writing ten or twenty beginnings to four or five stories at once before finally taking off with the one that flows!
    Usually the one I choose is one that I have set the outline to a specific format -based off a folktale or Bible story. The outline is more recognizable and distinct, but I face challenges in the writing process to ensure my story is its own thing and not a copy of the original model. For example, the one I am writing now is based off the story of Moses in the Bible. Although the original story has been set before me, ideas boil out of me in such passionate enthusiasm I that it sometimes seems like my life energy is being printed out on the page moreso than words! The excitement and challenge of keeping the essence of what was given to us through the book of Exodus while retelling the tale in a new and thrilling way for today’s readers makes my heart expand until I think it will burst!
    It is then that I feel the wholeness of the gift God has given me -it could be used to journal about my own life or blog about a television show, even fill up pages of a book with my own underdeveloped ideas, but instead it is creating this story based on what God has already given us. It feels like worship. In the quiet place, dancing in the streets, or hunched over a computer typing furiously because God gave you this story and need to write…. It is all given to us by God’s own design!
    He gave us guidelines like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule because he knew we, humanity, could come up with countless ways to help others and worship God if we knew our boundaries. So when we are faced with boundaries in our creative writing or drawing or whatever else, we have even more power and creativity to throw ourselves into raw, glorious worship for our creator! We write, and we strain, and we fight to finally finish and give God this book or essay or novel, and when it is finally done, God rewards us… with another story of worship to write.
    And that…..
    is so….
    COOL.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      If I put it into words, then you just expanded on the premises exponentially. Thank you for the valuable addition, complete with your own examples. Very cool. And you’re right: God gave us limitations not to hinder us, but to propel us forward. Friction gives us purchase to advance against inferior forces.

  • http://diananesbitt.com Diana

    YES. Yesyesyes. I have always felt that I am at my most creative when I have limitations, but I thought it was just my indecisive personality. Good to know I’m not nuts – at least in this area. ;) Thanks for encapsulating that truth so well!

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      @Diana: you’re so welcome! Honored that you’d swing by to read. I think we all have a bit of indecisive in us, which is why these simple truth is so universal in nature—so no worries there. I’m with you!

  • http://www.shanedeal.com Shane Deal

    I’ve noticed this too when I noticed that November is my most productive month of the year, it’s also one of the busiest and most ‘intense’ months for me. The biggest difference I think is the limits imposed on me. I have only the month to write the same amount of work I usually spend three or four months on. Yet, the results of November are consistently better than my usual work. This is due to the time limit, I think. There is one other thing, mostly unique to November, and that is accountability.

    Thanks for posting this, it is something I’ve been needing, I think. I’ve not written anything other than blog post and such this year. (Well, I’ve written in my journal too.) The thing lacking is the limit, I think. It all feels very much like the ‘blank canvas syndrome’. There it is, the blank document. Now what? In many ways if an author was presented with a blank sheet of paper or a dragon, they would find the paper more frightening. The dragon forces action, while the paper demands it. This is certainly true for me.

    While not so much a creative thing, my learning of the Chinese Language is another thing where limits have helped. I have to keep at it, even though some days I feel truly bewildered by it. Here’s the thing, I’ve told a lot of people about it, I can’t back out now. This too is a form of a limit, and it is one that improves me.

    In answer to how I impose limits, I think I would have to say it’s a combination of a time limit and accountability.

    Thanks again for posting this!

    -Shane

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      @Shane: Super valuable insights you offer here. Great stuff, and a welcome addition to this original post. Thank you! Love the time issues as well as the accountability. So true.