Think Inside the Box

So often managers and directors ask us to think outside the box. But what if that’s the exact wrong path to take?

Creativity Thrives on Limitations

When Monty Python went to work on their first movie, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, they only had £229,575 to spend (most acquired through George Harrison of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and members of Led Zeppelin). This created serious limitations. They wanted to have the knights mounted on noble steeds, but the cost of actual horses was out of the question. The solution? Have a squire follow behind clapping two coconuts together. It became one of the more memorable gags in the whole movie.

Dr. Seuss’s publisher, Bennett, challenged the author to create a book kids couldn’t put down, but with only 50 words (the author had already met the challenge of 238 words with The Cat in the Hat). In 1960, Dr. Seuss penned Green Eggs and Ham. As a perfectionist, he used exactly 50 words:

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

The message here… creativity thrives on restrictions. 

The Paradox of Choice

The myriad of choices available to a writer or artist can sometimes be paralyzing. It’s why we stare at the blank page or empty canvas. As a school teacher, I can tell you what the worst writing assignment for students is: Write whatever you want. 

It’s not that we lack creativity. But limitless possibilities can overwhelm us. We can’t decide where to start. Every first word or line feels like a mistake. 

A modern dilemma for all of us is the paradox of having too many options. With the Internet and streaming channels, we have a plethora of entertainment options available. Yet more and more, the effort to make a decision leaves us frustrated. 

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz says: “Unfortunately, the proliferation of choice in our lives robs us of the opportunity to decide for ourselves just how important any given decision is.”

It’s no mistake that streaming channel Netflix has a “randomized” option. Even the best social media platform, TikTok, uses an algorithm to discover new content for you, based on your viewing habits. 

Box Yourself In

Adding limitations does put pressure on the creator. Monty Python didn’t have the budget for a flashy title sequence, so they opted for jokes about Mooses. Dr. Seuss had to craft a best-seller using 188 less words than his previous limited-word book. 

But pressure can create diamonds. 

If you’re a writer, consider the ways you can limit yourself.

  • Write using only a few character archetypes
  • Limit yourself to a certain genre or form
  • Choose a character other than the protagonist for the point of view
  • Write the scene or chapter in less pages
  • Set a time limit

Artists have other options:

  • Use only a certain media for a project
  • Use materials on hand rather than on the ones you wish you had
  • Try a limited color palette or black and white
  • Limit your drawing to basic shapes or only curves
  • Draw with your eyes closed
  • Set a time limit

The equation is simple. Staring at a blank page creates zero words or lines. Even if you end up abandoning the piece you made through limitations, at least it got you creating. And that’s the goal, right? We want to write or draw. Giving us less choice can often get our butts off the dime. 

Tim Kane

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