On the Virtues of Limitations

I spend a lot of time thinking about limitations. As creative people, limitations constantly chafe. They’re perpetual thorns in our sides. We think to ourselves, “If only I had more time, more money, better resources, I’d be free to truly explore my ideas and realize unfettered creativity!”

But I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think quite the opposite. I think that limitations – when approached from the correct perspective – can be one of the most powerful tools in a creative person’s arsenal.

OK, let me back up. Start over and give some context for that statement…

This past Friday, a couple of my colleagues and I attended a video making seminar at the Johnson County Public Library presented by Casey Neistat. (If you’re not familiar with Casey Neistat, do yourself a favor and go watch his stuff! It’s awesome! He’s the best DIY filmmaker out there!)

One of Casey’s favorite refrains is “Embrace the limitations!” Every time he said this, I couldn’t help but think, “Man, George Lucas could learn a thing or two from this guy!”

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about Star Wars. (Then again, when am I not thinking about Star Wars?) When George Lucas made the original film, he was forced to work within a set of pretty severe limitations – very low budget, very few resources, no faith from the movie studio, special effects technology that didn’t even exist yet… At every turn, he had to reconsider his vision, revise his ideas, and change his movie in order to make it work within these imposed confines.

The result was one of the most inventive, revolutionary, and influential SF movies of all time.

But look what he did when he had a massive budget and unlimited resources. He “re-made” the original trilogy (and made them worse, in my opinion) and he gave us… the Prequel Trilogy.

When he was free to create whatever he wanted, without limitations, he made some truly awful films! (OK, I actually think that Revenge of the Sith was pretty decent, but The Phantom Menace?)

Take away the limitations of his early career and he went from the great storytelling of films like American Graffiti and the original Star Wars, to making the Prequel Trilogy – and he’s proud of it! Unfettered creative freedom didn’t do anything to make him a better filmmaker or storyteller. It simply made him unrestrainedly self-indulgent and solipsistic.

And I think the same is true for most of us.

Although, according to this Cracked article it may be that Lucas isn’t the best example of a truly creative person. Instead, I find myself thinking about the Goodman Theatre in Chicago…

For the first seven years that I lived in Chicago, the Goodman was housed in a space that was attached to the Art Institute (it got torn down to make way for the new Modern Wing). One of the reasons I enjoyed seeing shows at the Goodman during my early years in Chicago is because they boasted some of the most inventive and original set designs I’ve ever seen!

Which is surprising, given how crappy that space was. The fly system was non-existant, the wings were small and ridiculously unbalanced, and the stage was surrounded by a wall which restricted the entry/exit points from backstage and severely limited how set pieces could travel. It was a set designer’s nightmare! I’m honestly hard pressed to think of a worse space in all my years of working in theatre. Even black boxes and storefronts were easier spaces to work in.

Then the Goodman moved to its current location in a custom-built space which boasts two fly houses that are very nearly ideal! Plenty of height, plenty of wing space, no untoward spacial or movement restrictions. As you would expect, the sets became bigger, grander, more elaborate… and a whole lot less interesting. In 10 years, I never saw a set design in the new space that could rival the unbridled creativity of the sets that I used to see in their old space on a regular basis.

Take away all the frustrating impediments of their old space, and the set designs actually became less creative.

I believe that it was precisely the limitations of the old Goodman space that generated such impressively creative sets. The space forced set designers to be endlessly inventive in finding ways to work around the myriad problems the space presented. The resulting designs were necessarily highly innovative and unconventional. There was simply no other way to approach that space.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Faced with problems that are not of your own making, they impose perspectives that you would never come to on your own. Limitations force you out of yourself and have the power to bootstrap you to a whole new level of creativity!

Limitations require us to prioritize our ideas, to focus, to pare down only to what’s most important and get rid of everything else. Limitations counter our natural tendency towards self-indulgence and make us better editors of our own work.

So the next time you find yourself resenting your lack of time, resources, and creative freedom, step back a bit and think about how you can use these limitations to your advantage, how they can enlarge your perspective in ways you would never imagine on your own, how you can transform them from restrictions that chafe into tools that can help you generate better ideas, and guides that can lead you to purer expressions of those ideas.

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