What is it about some individuals and organizations that make them jump out the crowd and rise above average? How are people like Stephen Hawking, suffering from ALS, or Temple Grandin, born with autism, able to overcome their limitations and become the best in their fields? It sometimes seems that the ones who truly achieve something phenomenal are the ones who initially have the biggest limitations.
The truth is, limitations can actually work in your favor. I recently watched a TED talk from Phil Hansen, who while in art school developed a permanent nerve damage making his hand tremor and shake uncontrollably. As an artist, Hansen’s hand was his greatest asset and being no more able to draw a straight line was naturally devastating. Hansen eventually left art school and refused to do art for a long time. However, after searching himself for three years he found a new style of drawing that complemented his shaking hand. With his new style he was actually able to do beautiful art without being hindered by the nerve damage in his arm.
Then something very interested happened in Hansen’s life. Hansen had rarely had enough money to buy the tools and equipment he would have wanted to use in his art, but after getting a new job he decided to stack up in art supplies. For a moment he felt joy for not being limited due to a lack of proper supplies and for finally being able to think outside the box. However, shortly after buying the badly needed supplies, he got stuck in a creative slump that lasted for a long time. Hansen was dumbfounded. Why is it that while finally having enough tools to do the art he wanted, his mind becomes completely blank? The reason dawned on him later. His mind had simply become paralyzed by all the options that were now available to him. Not being limited in any way actually hindered Hansen’s ability to think creatively.
Doesn’t this somehow sound familiar? Haven’t we all had these moments where you desperately try to overcome some barrier, thinking that if it wasn’t for that one thing you would be able to succeed. And when you finally do overcome the barrier you just end up feeling blank and paralyzed? This happens also with relatively simple issues. I have sometimes paralyzed myself on my off-days just by trying to choose how to spend my time. Even renting a movie feels sometimes more exhausting than relaxing because of having to make a pick among thousands of options. It would seem that our minds get stuck when there are no limitations – when there are no barriers to guide us.
Imagine, for example winning a lottery – something many people dream about regularly. What would it feel? Amazing? A dream come true moment? Initially many would be at the top of their worlds, but what do you think happens when the euphoria settles? Many lottery winners actually blow their money and ruin their relationships because they could not handle their new life situation. Suddenly all the limitations you previously had are gone and there’s no one telling what to do next, which is not easy to handle.
Luckily Hansen realized this and he eventually came to embrace his limitations. He realized first hand what many designers and creative thinkers intuitively understand, which is that limitations are in fact a source of creativity. Ever since his epiphany Hansen has found ways to self-impose new limitations into his work, including only using self-destructive materials or painting on his belly.
How to use limitations?
Hansen was able to use his natural limitations to his advantage, eventually creating new limitations to act as a source of creativity. This is something that many great individuals and organizations have also learned and which separates them from the masses. Steve Jobs was known for his unrelenting requirement for beautiful product design, with no exceptions. He even demanded that the insides of Apple’s products – where no one would ever look – must look beautiful. Jobs’s uncompromising attitude towards design (and deadlines) imposed a limitation on Apple that forced the company’s people to work in new ways and think outside the box.
Companies and individuals who have uncompromising principles and who set standards for themselves are in fact limiting themselves in a creative way. They are forced to design their future according to their self-imposed limitations – often transforming themselves to something outstanding, something we all look up to. What we as individuals can learn from Hansen and his kind is that to become limitless we must embrace our limitations and actively seek ways we can exploit them.
How can we use limitations as a source of creativity and growth? Here are several suggestions to consider:
- Set standards for yourself. What are your must-haves, your top priorities that you will not compromise? Think of Steve Jobs or any other uncompromising person you know as a source of inspiration.
- Try to turn your weaknesses into strengths. Ask yourself how can you take advantage from a potential weakness. Phil Hansen became proficient at finding new ways to create art due to being unable to use his hand. If your weakness is writing, for example, maybe you can become an excellent public speaker instead?
- Use deadlines, budgets, or other limitations to provoke creativity. If you’re building something, set limitations for the materials you can use. When practicing sports, limit yourself in some way and try to work around that limitation.
PS. Here is the TED talk from Phil Hansen: