I Dare You to Do it Anyway: Why Limitations are an Asset

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Welcome to Good Enough Creative, a podcast for creative people.

Hi again, welcome back! I’m your host, Marie Greene, and in today’s episode we’re talking about why having limited resources is actually better for your creativity – And why I dare you to find a way, even if you don’t have everything you think you need.

What am I talking about?

Okay, listen – we’ve talked before about how sometimes one of our excuses for why we can’t make the thing or do the thing is because we don’t have the right tools or the right supplies. In knitting we often talk about not having enough of the right yarn – we might have almost enough but not quite. In painting it might be not having the right brush or the right paper. In weaving it might be that you don’t have a big enough loom. In pottery it might be that you only have a tiny kiln.

There are a million and one resources that you will wish you had. And you might even be convincing yourself that – without those right supplies or tools – you can’t move forward.

I want to approach this topic today with some real life examples of how limitations can lead to great ideas. And I want to say this, we all know the stories about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Oprah and all the people who came from nothing or who had very little, or started in a garage, and now they’re millionaires or billionaires. And while that’s wonderful and their stories are inspiring, I want to focus more on the kinds of stories that can help regular people who are not necessarily on the journey to create a mega-empire but who would just like to avoid getting stuck on their creative journey.

So let’s talk about how – in practical terms – NOT having the right resources or tools can actually help you do better, more interesting, and more creative work.

I saw a video reel of a young woman who makes pottery. And one of her signature pieces is a little ceramic cartoon-y frog head that looks like a salt pig (if you know what that is). It’s like a little round head with a wide circular mouth. She said she’d initially created it for pet hamsters or gerbils to have in their cages as a cozy little spot to hide. Anyway, so she mentioned that her best selling and sort of signature pieces are these little salt pig style shapes that are filled with tinier little shapes – little tiny mushrooms or tiny little monsters. You can tip it forward and all of the little bitty miniature pieces spill out. I’m realizing now that this is hard to explain without seeing it. But she talked about how she arrived at this idea. She said that every year she participates in a mushroom hunt – I think it has something to do with potters and ceramic artist making little one of a kind pieces and hiding them for people to find on a treasure hunt. Anyway, she was making tons of these tiny mushrooms, and she mentioned that she has a very tiny kiln – she showed it and it looked big enough for maybe one medium sized bowl at a time. Very tiny. And she’d made one of those medium sized frog head pieces and thought, well – I’m really short on space, and I need to bisque fire as many of these tiny mushrooms as I can.

So she filled the larger piece full of the tiny mushroom pieces and fired them all together as one. And when it was finished, it worked perfectly. I’ve done a bit of pottery and I confess that I didn’t realize that you could bisque fire pieces touching or stacked like that, but apparently you can. She showed the finished result in one of her stories and people loved it so much – it was so cute seeing this little frog head piece with its mouth full of tiny mushrooms – again, it’s hard to express that this is cute, but it looked much cuter than my description. And if I could find that reel again I would share it with you so you could see for yourself. Anyway, people started asking to buy pieces like that – with the one large piece filled with tons of little bitty pieces. She mentioned that she would have never thought to offer it like that, but it has turned out to be her most popular work. And she would not have landed on that idea if she had not been limited on space and had only a very tiny kiln to fire her work.

It was the necessity caused by a lack of space and a need to finish more pieces in less time that led her to an idea that became her most successful venture.

Phil Hansen was an art student who specialized in pointillism. It’s this incredible process of creating art with tiny dots that form complex and beautiful images. (Side note: a friend of mine is a botanical artist who specializes in this same style and I know from seeing her work that this is a very slow and painstaking way of creating art. But it’s gorgeous.)

But there came a time when Phil began to struggle to make the same small, round dots on the page. His hand had begun to shake, so much so that he couldn’t keep it still. The little dots became dashes, and the worse it got, the more discouraged and frustrated he became. He left art school and then he gave up art altogether. For three years he avoided it. He finally saw a neurologist who told him that he had nerve damage in that hand and that the shake was now a part of him. Phil realized he would never again be able to pursue his dream of art in the way that he had always envisioned. But when the neurologist said to him, “Why don’t you just embrace the shake?” Phil realized that his pursuit of pointillism may be over, his life as an artist was not.

He began scribbling. Using wavy lines to create larger images. Using his feet. Using 2x4s and a blow torch. Phil said:

“If I worked on a larger scale and with bigger materials, my hand really wouldn’t hurt. And after having gone from a single approach to art, I ended up having an approach to creativity that completely changed my artistic horizons. It was the first time I had encountered this idea that embracing limitation could actually drive creativity.”

In his TED Talk (which I’ll link in the show notes – it’s absolutely worth watching), he talks about how he was finally about to graduate from art school and he was so excited to finally be able to afford good supplies. He talked about how he had these terrible little tools and how he thought he could do so much more with all the supplies that he thought an artist was supposed to have (the supplies he could not afford at the time). He said he didn’t even have a regular pair of scissors – he was a poor student in every sense of the word.

And then he graduated and got his first check and went nuts at the art store buying all kinds of cool supplies; all the things he’d always wished he’d had access to.

And then he sat down to make something creative and unique and…. He drew a complete blank. He sat there for hours and nothing came to mind at all.

He said this went on for quite a while – and he felt like he was in a creative slump. He finally had all the supplies he’d dreamed of, but something the ideas and inspiration were gone.

What he realized was that he had become paralyzed by all the choices that he hadn’t had before. When you have to figure out how to use what you have, and it’s not enough, you will naturally tap into a flow of creativity that is not available to you at other times. But when you have access to everything you need and want and more – all of a sudden, you become a victim of the paradox of choice. Suddenly too many choices become an obstacle.

Phil began to wonder if he could tap back into his creativity by intentionally limiting his supplies. What if he challenged himself to make art with only $1 worth of supplies?

He goes on to share more about his journey back to creativity – and I encourage you to check out his TED Talk, but I think the message for all of us here is that not having what we think we need IS the gift. It’s the gift that allows us to think more creatively. It’s the gift that leads to ideas we would not have had otherwise.

On a simpler level, I am a knitwear designer and I technically have access to really any yarn I could ever want to create my designs. And there came a point in my own creative journey that I realized I was starting to feel overwhelmed and uninspired by having too many options. It was this level of overwhelm that inspired me to shift my own thinking about how and when I acquire new supplies, and how I approach a new design. I like to challenge myself to create a new design using only yarn I already have – granted, I keep a very robust selection. But when you decide that you’re only going to choose from what you already have on hand, you do approach an idea differently. Instead of having access to any possible yarn (or whatever it might be for you), instead you have to look at what you have and find its potential.

I think this is why I’ve become so passionate over the years about keeping a stash of creative supplies at home. Not only does it offer somewhat instant gratification for an artist who wants to sit down and make art whenever the mood strikes, but it also creates a sort of natural limit to what you can use if you want to do the work right now without a trip to the store or placing an online order.

There’s nothing wrong with having the right supplies; it’s awesome to have choices and to be able to work with the supplies or tools that you love. But the message here is that – you don’t necessarily HAVE to have the right tools or supplies in order to create something wonderful. And in fact, if your creativity is hitting a slump, then maybe some limitations are exactly what you need.

Phil Hansen says that we need to be limited in order to become limitless.

I love that mindset.

Creativity hides in the most surprising places, and often it’s in our limitations. Whether it’s not enough space, not enough money, not enough supplies, not enough time, whatever the limitation is, I dare you to make art anyway. Until next time, my friend – you’ve got this.

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