Freedom is Overrated (Creative Freedom, That Is)
It is a general consensus that freedom equals more choices, which in turn leads to more happiness, right? Well, that is debatable, at least when you are talking about creative freedom. You see, if you are looking to create anything, whether it is a book, a structure, a presentation, a painting, or a movie, having all the freedom in the world could lead to all sorts of not so great outputs. If there are no restrictions, no guidelines, no standards then what is left is an unlimited amount of options, which could lead to trouble. If you want to really get into it, read Barry Schwartz Paradox of Choice. Fascinating book.
If you are looking for innovation, to do something that was never done before, then it is important to understand what the rules are so that you can push the limits. The benchmark allows us to stretch. If there are no benchmarks, then how do we know that we are pushing the envelope? I mean, in order to think outside the box, one needs to have a box to begin with.
This concept of restriction leading to creative breakthrough has been coming up more and more for me. It started with a David Sedaris (author of Me Talk Pretty) interview where he mentioned that no matter what he writes, he knows that he could stand to lose a couple of pages. Given that he typically writes short essays, giving up two pages is a big deal. Sedaris says that editing two pages out allows him to be more precise, more creative and more to the point. Ultimately his work is better because of the restrictions he imposes on himself.
That reminded me of the terrestrial radio days of Howard Stern, where because of the FCC, he needed to walk the very fine line of being provocative while still adhering to the rules imposed on him. This led to him developing bits that were crazy creative such as the match game, based on the famous game show. In this bit, Howard made a point to ask questions that were non-offensive, but the answers given ended up being pretty provocative. An example would be: Howard asks the panel of celebrity guests to fill in this blank: Blank-a-doodle-doo. I’ll let you figure out the answer. Anyway, this was his way of pushing the envelope within the given rules. If he had no restrictions would he ever come up with this bit?
I’m not done… here are a couple more examples. I listened to a Seth Rogen interview where he mentioned the same thing. He said that since he started directing TV shows, he has had to adjust his writing style to conform to the rules of TV. Because TV shoots moves so much quickly, he does not have the luxury of having multiple takes to improvise like he does on movies he has produced. That means that the writing needs to be better, which pushed him to be more creative. The restrictions forced him to do his best. He went on to mention that he sees this all the time with creative types. The ones that set up rules are the ones that end up coming up with the crazy stuff. He even mentioned culinary chefs. Setting parameters like an all vegan menu, or only using ingredients you can forage, forced chefs to find innovative ways to present their creations.
Another example is director Kevin Smith. His first, and arguably best, movie Clerks was shot using his own money (well, credit cards) so he had to get creative on what he was going to do. He focused his energy on dialog so that he could use the same shooting location (the convenient store he worked for). That way costs were lower. He also shot the movie in black and white to save costs. All these budgetary restrictions resulted in something that was atypical from anything else that was currently in the market.
What can we learn from this? It is not just in the creative space that we can set up guidelines to achieve breakthroughs. In business we can as well. If you are going to give a presentation, what guidelines can you set to push you to be more creative? Maybe you could set a limit on number of slides, or only use images to convey your point. If you have to develop a marketing plan, how could you get creative so that you can save 20% of your budget? What kind of ideas would that generate? If you are a leader what can you do to set expectations that will allow your team to be more creative?
Necessity forces us to come up with solutions that we have not come up with before. Next time you are working on a project, set some guidelines to push yourself to think a little further, to create something that you wouldn’t if you had all the freedom in the world.
Andre Mello is a coach and failed at his self-imposed restriction of staying to 750 words for this blog. He will try again next week. Andre has been in leadership and coaching for over 10 years. If you would like to connect with him, please visit www.wysecoaching.com