This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 9: Thinking Different
Where does creativity come from? Intuitively you might suppose that it requires freedom of thought and expression; that true inspiration requires a “blue sky” environment in which anything is possible. In my experience I have found the opposite to be true: I have found my most creative solutions when faced with limitations, whether they are imposed by some outside force, or self-imposed.
When I was in kindergarten in the 80s I loved building and designing houses. But unlike most kids of the 80s, I didn’t have a ready supply of lego bricks to build my houses. What I had was an abundance of wooden dominos, so that’s what I used.
Dominos isn’t the most intuitive of building materials. Unlike Lego or real bricks, there was no way to lock them together and they were considerably thinner. This meant you couldn’t use the same techniques you’d use for building houses without _a lot_ of dominos. As a result, you were forced to be more creative. While the other kids were lining up their dominos on their short end, creating domino rallies, I was considering how I could build something with them. Every ‘block’ was the same size, shape, and weight; apart from the arrangement of dots on the dominos they were identical. In order to build higher structures, I had to be careful how I stacked the dominos and I quickly learned how gravity impacted my masterpieces. Place a piece in the wrong place and it would come crashing down faster than a house of cards.
Creativity from Scarcity
What does this have to do with creativity? I found that a scarcity of the “right” material (in this case Lego bricks) forced me to find more creative solutions to my problem (how to launch my construction empire from the comfort of my kindergarten). If I had access to the same materials as other kids, it’s unlikely I would have innovated and my particular constructions would quickly have resembled those of the other children.
That’s not to suggest that faced with the prospect of building a full-sized house, you should choose straw instead of bricks. But there are plenty of real-world examples where scarcity has forced creativity and new ideas have blossomed as a result. Alternative fuel is an obvious example; the waterless toilet would be another.
Redefining the Possible
When I was building my domino buildings I started with simple castles, with turrets and small towers up to 2 dominos wide; These weren’t particularly stable structures and neither were they all that interesting to build. I wanted to build something grander and more intricate, but it just seemed impossible.
The problem was that it was difficult to build roofs onto structures more than two dominos wide. The logical thing to do would have been to accept this limitation and build within it, but as I experimented each morning, watching building after building collapse, I found a structure that was more stable – something akin to East Asian pagodas (though of course, I was too young to know that). With my new-found technique, my boundaries expanded and I could build much larger roofs. I quite literally redefined my own sense of what was “impossible.”
There are two possible responses to a seemingly impossible problem: accept the constraints and work within them, or attack the problem head-on.
Arthur C. Clarke Said:
“The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.”
Clearly, this is an easy thing to say and a hard thing to practice. Leaping from a tall building and expecting to survive is foolhardy to the point of idiotic; striving for change against all odds could be brave or hopelessly optimistic. But in my early experiences, I learned that a healthy resistance to accepting the constraints around me, combined with a gritted determination to push beyond them, enabled me to tap into my creativity and explore things that I’d previously considered to be impossible.
I haz macros!
The corporate environment can be a difficult one in which to be creative, but through a series of accidental career moves, I found myself finding creative solutions to problems with limited resources. Somehow I’d managed to become an “Excel Guru”.
There are Excel Gurus in many offices. They sit hunched in the corner, dreading the next occasion they’re asked _How do I put a password on this spreadsheet?_ or _How do I freeze the columns on this Excel database?
Whether it was creating a simple table of data or a performance dashboard littered with red, amber and green, my Excel Guru job gave me plenty of opportunities to flex my creative muscles.
As my esteemed leaders’ requests became for more and more convoluted, my macro-based solutions evolved from “hacks” into fully-blown “applications.” Much like the dominos of my childhood, I was using something that was completely the wrong tool for the job, but a good way to rapidly prototype an idea; you can write some code, hookup an Access database and you have a software application! I was certainly the nightmare of most IT departments, who promptly decided my solutions didn’t exist and therefore didn’t require any support. My solutions may have been crude, but I used the only tools I had available to me to create solutions that nobody else (including IT) was able or willing to provide.
To some, particularly the software development community, it may feel anathema that I was hacking solutions that would no doubt cause headaches further down the road. Given the right tools and time, I would probably have focussed on flexibility, maintainability or reliability. But at the same time, it’s entirely possible that in focussing on those things I would have taken ten times as long, cost ten times as much or just as likely I wouldn’t have finished anything at all.
All the tools in the galaxy
Freedom is a funny thing: In the free world you are born with a seemingly infinite supply; As you grow up it seems to be gradually whittled away. Like many people around the world since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, I’m looking for work. In many ways, it’s a blessing, an opportunity for new problems to solve.
Outside of the corporate environment, the grass is very green; There are endless meadows and bright blue skies. If only it were as simple as having to choose whether to use dominos or Lego. Bizarrely, when there are so few restrictions it can be easy to feel overwhelmed.
I believe with enough time and experience you can learn how to do anything, but as Lewis Carroll said:
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
It’s important to set your own restrictions and boundaries, to focus on how you want to develop. Impose your own constraint and use them to stimulate your own creativity.
I’m trying to steer myself into a career software development but it’s a very wide field. While it’s possible to spend my time learning everything I need to know, I’ve found it more effective to tackle real problems that have their own constraints; Taking a pragmatic approach to self-development will help you spot the gaps in your knowledge and learn what you need to know, when you need to know it.
When life gives you dominos and you find yourself wishing for Lego, look instead for the creative spark that comes from working with scarce resources and impossible boundaries; you might find yourself going in a new and exciting direction.