Embrace the Shake: How Limitations Can Boost Creativity

Recently I was straightening up around my home when I came across a book titled “The World’s Shortest Stories.” Each story in the book is comprised of just 55 words. As the introduction states, “Fifty-Five Fiction is storytelling at its very leanest, where each word is chosen with utmost care on its way to achieving its fullest effect…” A couple of my favorites:

He’d known her since she was very young. She was the most beautiful girl in the world, and he loved her deeply. At one time he had been her idol. Now he was losing her to another man.

Eyes glistening, he kissed her cheek softly, then smiled as he gave her away to the groom.

* * *

The Brainiac. The Nerd. Not anymore. A midsemester move to a new school. A chance for a new identity.
Algebra. First day. First period. Sitting in the back with the cool people, hoping to clique, I finish my exam long before anyone else.

Doubting my calculations, the teacher grades it aloud: 100.

I’ve failed.

* * *
Reading these quirky, amusing stories reminded me of a workshop I gave a few years ago on innovation. One of the points I made about brainstorming was that establishing limitations – as opposed to the wide open, “blue sky” thinking typically associated with that activity – can actually spur creativity rather than hinder it. I provided several examples, but none were more compelling than a video of artist Phil Hansen. Hansen developed a shake (the result of permanent nerve damage) in art school, which led him to drop out and leave art altogether for several years. When a neurologist advised that he “embrace the shake,” Hansen returned to art and developed new ways of painting by accepting and leveraging his restrictions.

“What I thought would be the ultimate limitation,” says Hansen, “actually turned out to be the ultimate liberation.”

This video of Hansen’s TED talk is 10 minutes long, but it could be the most inspiring, provocative, and entertaining 10 minutes of your day. I hope you find it as thought-provoking as I did. Please take a moment to share your thoughts below.