Constraints and Creative Incubation

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When we’re in the process of making a change in our lives, that change can never happen quick enough (more on that in last week’s post). There are lots of reasons for why this is, but today I want to talk about one in particular – when life gets in the way.

Imagine you’re ready to quit your job and launch a business idea you’ve had in your head for a while. More likely than not, you can’t just storm into your boss’s office, yell, ‘I quit!’ and walk straight into your new startup. We may wish for that, but most of the time it’s not happening. Instead, you must first consider how to manage the interconnected pieces of your life that also have a ‘stake’ in this new choice you’re making –  the relationships, obligations, trade-offs, and other restrictions that make up the architecture of your life and all the choices you’ve made.

For instance, going back to your new business idea – how are your finances looking? Maybe you’re not able to quit your job and launch your new startup because you don’t yet have enough saved. Or, perhaps your partner is currently taking some sort of professional risk and now isn’t the time for you to do the same. Maybe you’re pregnant, or thinking about starting a family, and you don’t have the energy or focus to work on your idea full time. 

The truth is, there are real and true constraints that each of us faces as we’re trying to create change in our lives. Sometimes these constraints do slow us down or even block our progress altogether. Yet often we let these constraints feel bigger than they really are, giving them more power and control over our work than they deserve – when in fact they could be working for us.

Ok, real talk: over the last few weeks, I’ve been feeling the effects of the constraints that restrict my own progress with Wayfinders Collective – particularly my need to earn income to support myself and my family. In an ideal world I could throw myself into Wayfinders Collective full-time, but the reality is that I’m a normal human being with normal responsibilities, which means I also need to earn money. And unfortunately, Wayfinders Collective isn’t yet the source for those funds.

So, how do I deal with this really big constraint – something that feels like it’s getting in the way of my making progress? By re-framing it as a moment for creative incubation. 

Here’s what I mean:

When I was at IDEO, I learned the power that constraints provide in the creative process; by restricting your focus or creating ground rules for engagement, designers and artists are actually able to unlock their creative thinking in new ways. As Jocelyn K. Glei put it in her Hurry Slowly podcast with artist and author Austin Kleon, “When it comes to creativity, limitations can be liberating.” 

In fact, Austin gave a great example of a band of musicians who only create songs using the noises of their washing machine. They record different sounds from the machine, then sample them into songs on their computers. When asked about why they limited themselves to using only these washing machine sounds, the band said that while it might seem like it would be harder, it’s actually easier to create this way – because they know what they have to work with. They have these constraints and these parameters, and the fun part becomes seeing what they can get out of it. This is the value and power of constraints.

There’s no getting away from the fact that life creates constraints that we must work in, through and around. But if we double down on the idea that constraints can actually liberate our creativity, perhaps we can begin to see constraints as an advantage in our creative process. 

For me, the major constraint I face – money – is forcing me to slow my progress with the ‘real’ work of building out all of my ideas and bringing to life the vision I have for Wayfinders Collective. The question for me then becomes: what would it look like to view this constraint as a creative advantage, rather than a detriment?

My friend recently introduced me to the idea of ‘greenhousing’ – as she describes it, it’s the realization that the ‘seedling’ idea you have actually isn’t ready to go out into the big, wild world. Instead, it needs the warm air, the soft sunlight and the nutrient-rich soil to germinate, to slowly grow and get stronger, before it’s really ready to be transplanted into its new home outside. 

My idea for Wayfinders Collective truly is a little seed, and while I may want to accelerate its growth and push it up through the wet soil as fast as possible, I’m realizing that all I’ll do in the process is ruin its long-term chances for survival. Perhaps by moving more slowly, my little seed of an idea will have time to grow and thrive in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I rushed to the end result as fast as I could. And all of that benefit is derived from the fact that I have to deal with my own current constraints.

One added bonus to constraints? They are a wonderful forcing function to make you focus only on the things that really, truly matter. They stop you from boiling the ocean, as they say, and hone in on the handful of priorities that really count. If I’m constrained by needing to work on other things in order to earn money, for example, I’m going to have to prioritize the opportunities that are most urgent, promising or interesting for Wayfinders Collective (which you’ll continue to see roll out in the coming months!).

I’m guessing that, like me, the change you seek along your wayfinding journey feels urgent and important, and you wish you could wave your magic wand and ‘arrive’ already. But also like me, you probably face some constraints that make you feel like you’re being pulled backward when all you want to do is go forward. The next time you feel this way, I encourage you to remember your little seedling of an idea, your spark of a thought for a new direction – and summon your patience.

As Austin said in Hurry Slowly, “There are no shortcuts to becoming a whole human being.” Similarly, there are no shortcuts to dealing with the constraints that hold us back. Life really does get in the way sometimes. 

But when we start viewing constraints as one enabler of our creativity – in fact perhaps even the incubator and life support that our little seedling needs – we can also start to see purpose and progress in putting one foot in front of the other, day by day, everyday.

When it comes to creativity, limitations really can be liberating. How are you welcoming your life’s constraints into your creative process?