Limits Can be the Fertile Ground for Creativity, Here is Why

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Not long ago I listened to a talk that really showed me the other side of the creativity coin. It is titled “Embrace the Shake” from artist Phil Hansen. Phil told the story of how a tremor developed in his right hand – a disruptive limit for an artist who loved pointillist drawings- gave him the ultimate freedom to create when he had learnt to “embrace” his shaky hand. Phil changed his perspective about creativity and life and started using limits as the very fuel for his creative life. The message Phil tried to send across in this talk reminds me of “Begin Again”, a lovely, lyrical movie about music and artists. When Gretta-a heartbroken singer-songwriter and Dan-a former stellar music producer turned pathetic loser, being rejected by the music label company, sparked a crazy idea of recording the whole album outdoor all over New York city, with the metropolitan ambient, in the noise of police cars and subway trains, and “it becomes the tribute to this beautiful, God damn crazy fractured mess of a city. New York.”

Embracing limits a bold stand in creativity. It gives us no excuse to postpone and the freedom to simply begin. We often don’t create because of limits. They rise from the ground like a brick wall between us and our vision; some are as gigantic and intimidating as the Great Wall of China. But what about instead of breaking this brick wall – which very often we don’t have a wrecking ball big enough to do, we see it as the very canvas to start drawing?



Creative ideas are often like a butterfly elusively flying from one flower to the other on a sunny day. They are subtle, hard to catch, sometimes slip away on the tip of our finger. At least that’s what I feel in my own creative process. With this new approach, limits are suddenly like the solid, unshakable ground for creativity to take root. They can be our materials. Don’t know where to start? Start from where you are standing, with the limits in your backpack.

I started a room renovation project to make the place feel more "home" after two years living away. I had a long list of things I wanted to change, many of which would result in new purchases. A brick wall rose from the ground: I had decided to use my saving to “buy”3 months off to learn about writing, thus I’d better not binge. So I challenged myself to renovate my room with a 20 dollars budget. That made me scout around the house for things my family no longer used. Instead of buying new pin board I decorated the back of my wardrobe, which is also used as a divider between my sleep and work areas. I learnt to fix and adorn lamps, to remove stickers on wood with nail polish remover instead of spending money on new furniture. The whole project took a week and it was great fun! I cannot be happier with my room and felt absolutely home. Had I had lots of money to afford an expensive makeover, I wouldn’t have been so creative.

A couple of months ago when I decided to learn drawing, I put limits on my art supplies, only used pencils of three different colors at first. I drew more and better, without feeling overwhelmed by the choices I needed to make about colors. After all, I just had three. (I bought more supplies only when I repeatedly need something extra. My art supplies grow organically with my skill. I supposed in that way, they are my servant, not my master.) Limits were turned into the fertile ground of my creative process.

This is the bold stand we can take not only in art but also in life. Life is full of limits and the unexpected. They might be temporary or permanent. Like how the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt got his his left hand badly burned in a fire and lost the use of his third and fourth fingers when he was eighteen. Despite being told by everyone that he’d never play the guitar again, he used his two good fingers for solos, his injured ones for chord work, and created his own musical style. Perhaps we can rise above and beyond these limits because they might be, in the words of Paulo Coelho, "rivers that sometimes seem to block our path and which, in fact, should never be crossed, but followed."



What about you?

What are the limits that seem to stop you from reaching your goal in art or in life?

How can you use them as the fertile ground or the material to simply begin?