Freedom is the enemy of creativity, limitations are its saviour

How staying inside the box can help you think outside it


It’s a common misconception that freedom gives you the space to be a better creator.

Most creative endeavours take place within a restricted budget and those that have an abundance of talent and finances often fail to create anything original.

Limited environments actually foster more creativity than free and open ones, given that you already know how to perform your particular skill.

I’m going to convince you, using case studies and scientific analyses, that putting restrictions on your creative process is more beneficial than bottomless freedom.

Let’s get into it.

Embrace your limitations

In his TED Talk, ‘Embrace the Shake’, Phil Hansen tells the story of how he developed a shake in his hand after years of repeated pointillism.

The shake meant that all his lines were squiggly, all his dots looked like tadpoles, and grasping the pen tighter to compensate for it gave him joint issues which made it hard to hold anything.

After leaving art behind for a few years Hansen went to a doctor who told him he had nerve damage, and after looking at his squiggly lines, said: “why not embrace the shake?”

Hansen started drawing scribble pictures and although it wasn’t necessarily the type of art he wanted to create, he realised he could still be an artist in spite of his condition.

Still from Phil Hansen’s TED talk 2013 — ©Phil Hansen

His interest in the ‘fragmentation of images to create a bigger picture’ element of pointillism never left him and he decided that if he made bigger pictures, his hand wouldn’t affect them so much.

Once he finished school he went to a shop, bought as many art supplies as he could, sat down to create, but his ability to think outside the box was crippled by the overabundance of choice.

Hansen thought back to his jittery hand, “embrace the shake”, and realised that he should quit trying to think outside the box and get back into it.

He decided to drastically reduce the supplies and tools he used. He painted an image of Bruce Lee by dipping the side of his hand in paint and karate chopping the canvas.

Bruce Lee — Karate Chopped Paint — ©Phil Hansen

He took these limitations one step further by creating images that destroyed themselves shortly after completion. He called the installation ‘Goodbye Art’ and created pieces using spit out food, frozen wine, and candles.

Hansen’s shaky hand, and subsequent embrace of limitations, forced him to think outside the box and create art he never would’ve even tried to create had those limitations not been imposed.

In 1995 a study titled ‘Learned Variability’ researchers examined the effect of physical limitations on rats. They found that rats who only have their right leg free come up with more varied ways to perform a given task than those with full control over their limbs.

Their primary thesis for this behaviour is that the rats with only their right leg free had to develop more steps, and more approximations, than those who had full range of motion.

Enforced time constraints from work commitments have the same effect. When you’re under pressure to complete a task because you don’t feel you have the time necessary to write well, you have to think of new, more interesting, ways to write.

Sometimes you have to put yourself inside the box to think outside it.

Budget your creativity

Limiting the amount of money you spend on a project can also force you to think of new ways to create.

Filmmaking might seem like an elite hobby, reserved for those with huge financial backing, yet some of the best films ever made were filmed with extremely low budgets.

A great example would be the recent Netflix series Stranger Things. In this show the Duffer brothers had to make a lot of compromises due to a very low budget.

The two brothers wanted to film the show in a coastal town but couldn’t afford to. Because of this restriction they came up with the idea to create their own fictional town, like Stephen King’s Castle Rock, instead.

I personally loved the town of Hawkins and couldn’t imagine the show taking place in any other location.

Complex CGI is very expensive so they made some other compromises which gave a unique quality to the show.

They put an inch of water on the floor and hung up black curtains for the incredibly creepy ‘void’ scenes; they used actual ash and fog for the ‘upside down’ scenes; and they used a minimalistic ‘slow-swelling synth’ for the intro, all to save money on CGI.

Eleven traversing the Void — ©Stranger Things

Again, these restrictions show how putting pressure on yourself to perform within certain boundaries forces you to think outside the box.

However, you don’t have to wait until you’re in a situation where your finances are low in order to benefit from this phenomenon, you can impose the restrictions upon yourself.

M. Night Shyamalan took this exact approach when he filmed his recent 2016 smash-hit Split. Instead of using studio funding, he funded the entire film with his own money which kept him on edge and forced him to come up with novel solutions the same way the Duffer brothers did.

He said: “The reason I do it is so I can get that tension, that thing, so that every second is mine. It’s my money, it’s my thing.”

Shyamalan also used a crew of amateur filmmakers because he wanted to remember what it was like to be a beginner. It seems to have worked out well as the show received rave reviews from critics, one of which, Screenrant’s Sandy Schaefer, called it “the best M. Night Shyamalan creation in recent memory.”

In a 2013 study aptly named ‘How Do Financial Constraints Affect Creativity?,’ the effect of financial restrictions were tested on people’s ability to perform creative tasks such as product ideation and product repair.

The researchers found that: “at least under certain conditions, the use of financial constraints might constitute a promising approach to foster new ideas’ generation, one that leads to more creative outcomes despite using less costly inputs.”

The results are pretty conclusive, yet, what are these “certain conditions” the study refers to?

Ground your work in facts and the rules of your trade

It’s clear from the last two sections that restrictions in tools, supplies and overall finances put our brains into an innovation mindset. But, in order to excel under these limited conditions, we have to understand how to create within our field and ground our work in fact.

In his Sirius XM interview Shyamalan wanted to use the inexperience of new blood to bring his filmmaking back to its roots, but, he makes the caveat that they had his well of knowledge to draw upon and guide them through.

When referring to science fiction films, Neil deGrasse Tyson often distinguishes between the good and the bad dependent on how close the films were to the actual science.

Interstellar is a good example because they had Kip Thorne, an esteemed theoretical physicist, on board as executive producer. He made sure that all the fictional scientific elements were as close to the actual laws of physics as possible.

Tyson often quotes Mark Twain as having said: “get your facts straight first, then distort them as you please.” Suggesting that in order to come up with creative fiction, you need a factual anchor.

The same goes for understanding the rules of your craft. My favourite quote on this comes from Strunk and White’s The Elements of style, the best book on English rhetoric out today.

Strunk said: “It’s an old observation, that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.”

Again we see the theme of sticking yourself inside a box, in this case the rules of rhetoric, to be able to think outside it. By grounding yourself in facts and rules you are able to push yourself beyond their boundaries.

Hansen didn’t suddenly become a great artist when he got the shakes, he’d already studied the rules of art and practiced his skills in pointillism before he suffered the restriction.

The same goes for any creator, learn the skills of your craft first then bring on the restrictions.


Creativity is not born from freedom. If you really want to push yourself beyond your limits you have to learn a skill, absorb its rules, learn where the limits lie, and exceed them.

The best way to surpass these limits is to barricade yourself in them and look for the beams of light shining through the cracks.

As Hansen said in his TED Talk, “sometimes you need to be limited in order to become limitless.”

Freedom is the enemy of creativity, limitations are its saviour was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Matt Nicholls

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