The Power of Constraints
“Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant.”– Horace
The special effects team built “Bruce” the mechanical great white shark for a freshwater tank in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Jaws would be the first major motion picture filmed in the Atlantic Ocean. The moment fresh-water Bruce dove into the salt, all his circuits got fried. Steven Spielberg now faced the daunting task of making a shark movie without a shark. In fact, Bruce wouldn’t appear on screen until the 81st minute of the 2-hour film.
Spielberg could have paused production or canceled it. How do you make an oceanic horror film without its aquatic antagonist? Spielberg pivoted from horror to suspense. He leaned into John Williams’s Academy Award-winning score. Instead of seeing the shark stalk his prey, we get the shark’s perspective cruising beneath swimmers’ legs. Jaws went on to win three Oscars, become the highest-grossing film of its time, and invent the summer blockbuster. All this, despite the dysfunctional great white.
When faced with a challenge, we have a tendency to focus on what we don’t have and how those deficits will keep us from our goal. We tick off all the reasons we can’t. We don’t have this or we don’t have that. However, a 2018 study by Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg found just the opposite. After analyzing 145 empirical studies on the impact of constraints on creativity, they found “individuals, teams, and organizations alike benefit from a healthy dose of constraints.” Limited budgets, resources, time, and even experience can actually work in our favor. Limitations lead to innovations.
Even though we often say that creativity is thinking outside the box, it may be truer to say creativity is innovating within the box.
I studied creative writing as an undergraduate and graduate student. I led workshops at NYU. A classic assignment for new writers involves dropping a bunch of random nouns in a hat, making students draw three, and then having them write a story that involves all three words. By artificially narrowing students’ focus, you get them out of “all the stories they could write” and into the puzzle of connecting three random words. “Cat” + “Nerd” + “Lasagna.” Now go create a comic strip!
Without constraints there can be no breakthroughs.
Yes, the market is historically challenging. Inventory is non-existent. Interest rates are at ten-year highs. All this humidity makes for a lot of bad hair days. Move past your excuses. Embrace the constraints and make your own summer blockbuster.
One question to ponder in your thinking time: How can I rewrite the script and turn perceived disadvantages into real advantages?