“Thinking outside the box,” we’ve been told, is the path to boundless creativity and record-shattering innovation.
In fact, it is precisely limitations and constraints that spark our most creative ideas and generate the most practical and innovative solutions.
Our constraints hold the key to our freedom.
Consider an exercise: For which of these two challenges could you generate the most practical, implementable ideas in ten minutes:
1. Create a business.
2. Create an online business that:
- Leverages your particular interests and passions (the more clearly defined, the better).
- Requires no more than $1,000 to start.
- Can be operated in 10 hours per week or less.
- Can generate at least $2,000 net profit per month.
“When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas.” -T.S. Eliot
The first challenge has no box, no defined limitations. And that’s precisely why we draw a blank.
Or, the exercise may spark interesting ideas, but the vast majority of them are worthless and unworkable.
Creativity doesn’t simply mean having an abundance of ideas. It means actually creating concrete, useful solutions that create value in the world.
The second challenge is a clearly-defined box, which is exactly why it engages our imagination and sparks practical ideas much more easily.
This is what Ernie Schenck calls the “Houdini Solution” in his empowering book, The Houdini Solution: Put Creativity and Innovation to Work by Thinking Inside the Box.
Houdini was successful, says Schenck, because he accepted his self-imposed limitations and worked within their confines.
His straitjackets, chains, ropes, locks, coffins didn’t hold him captive — in fact, they defined his success. Writes Schenck:
“[Houdini] accepted the box. He accepted the water inside the box. He accepted the chains and the locks. Rather than allowing his mind to be consumed with the problem, he directed all of his energy toward solving it.”
Like Houdini’s chains, we have inescapable constraints in our business or job, our marriage, our relationships, our physical abilities–in virtually every aspect of our lives.
We can spend our lives bemoaning our fate, or we can accept our limitations and work within them to become more creative, innovative, and successful than we ever could have been without them.
Nick Vujicic was born with no arms or legs. Rather than lounging on the couch dreaming of flying, he waddles on stumps onto stages and wows crowds with his indomitable spirit. As Ernie Schenck reveals:
“The biggest secret of truly productive creative people is that they embrace obstacles, they don’t run from them. In their minds every setback is an opportunity, every limitation is a chance. Where others see a wall, they see a doorway.”
If we can’t recognize and accept our constraints, we’ll be forever enslaved by them. Ironically, only by embracing them will solutions arise.
“Creativity requires limits, for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings and against that which limits them.” -Rollo May
But our “box” is defined by more than constraints. It’s also defined by assets. In fact, accepting our constraints helps us recognize assets we haven’t seen before.
“What I wouldn’t give for a holocaust cloak.” -Wesley on The Princess Bride, when faced with the challenge of defeating sixty men with three
Potential assets remain unrecognized, unvalued, and unleveraged until we’re forced into a corner.
This is why so many heroic entrepreneurs have emerged during this recession. They’ve taken a hard look at their circumstances. They’ve accepted the constraints imposed by a crashed economy. They’ve played the hand they were dealt, rather than folding in despair.
Life will never deal us a full house. Instead, it’s given us a box with tough constraints. But within the framework of those constraints — and the assets they reveal — is the key to our freedom.
Stephen Palmer is a writer and entrepreneur devoted to helping people conquer limitations, maximize their potential, and achieve true freedom.
He is a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, the founder of Life Manifestos, and the author of Uncommon Sense: A Common Citizen’s Guide to Rebuilding America.
He co-authored the New York Times bestseller, Killing Sacred Cows: Overcoming the Financial Myths that are Destroying Your Prosperity. He is also the co-author of The Conscious Creator: Six Laws for Manifesting Your Masterpiece Life.
Stephen and his wife are raising their four children in southern Utah.