Learning to love constraints

Nothing makes me freeze up like starting a new creative project with absolute freedom to do whatever I want.

This might sound a bit strange. After all, isn’t creativity about thinking outside the box and about coming up with something new? Aren’t art and freedom of expression inextricably linked?

Well, yes and no. I used to think that truly creative individuals (as opposed to phonies like myself) created and invented effortlessly out of thin air. I figured that for the truly creative, making something from nothing is second nature, and since I always found staring down a blank canvas to be incredibly daunting, I must not actually be a creative person. No matter how much people would compliment my work, I always felt deep down like I was faking it, and I was terrified that someone would eventually find out.

Then I started to meet other creative people. I started to read articles and blog posts by artists I admired. It began to dawn on me that my experience and fear weren’t all that unique. Many artists, writers, designers, and even non “creative” people were experiencing the same feelings. I found some consensus that:

  • Starting a project is often the hardest part, and,
  • People are often at their most creative when working within a set of pre-defined boundaries.

I’d guess that different people require different types and amounts of boundaries. For me, they’re almost essential to getting anything done. This is why, for example, I’ve always felt more comfortable writing essays with an established topic than writing fiction. This is why when interior decorators are trying to decide what colour to paint a room, they’ll often build a palette around an object from the room. Without making some choices before starting out, possibilities are too limitless. I recently read about the “paradox of choice”: that people are often far happier when they have to choose between 3 options, for example, as opposed to 30. We feel stifled when we have no freedom to make creative choices, but completely overwhelmed when the options are limitless. Part of growing as an artist is discovering where that mythical balance lies (for yourself – I’d guess that it’s in a different place for each person).

This balance is part of what led me to favour design over art (at least most of the time). I’m at my best when I’m constrained by a set of problems – once I have issues to tackle, I can get to work and come up with interesting solutions. This isn’t to say that I don’t see value in making art – in fact, I love it (when it happens). I’m just more successful when I make a few choices in advance and let things go from there.

So, if you feel like a big faker because ideas don’t come easily to you in the beginning, don’t worry. It happens to everyone most people (OK, I’m sure there are some people who are naturally that good… jerks). Try imposing some boundaries on yourself and see what happens.

P.S. This post was inspired by the fact that I started this blog with too few constraints on myself. I mean, isn’t it great that I could have a space where I could write whatever the hell I want? Well, as it turns out… no.

One thought on “Learning to love constraints

  1. Pingback: Holding Back The Ocean To Build An Island: Media Amid Technical Change | Jeff Hume

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