Creativity under limits

The best way to improve your photography is to shoot with a fixed lens. I read that somewhere, sometime ago, and it’s true: Without a zoom, you have to move around and deliberately seek out the best angle for each shot.

Whenever people ask me how to start out with taking pictures, this is what I tell them – and regardless of how far cameras have evolved, it has remained the most sensible advice. It is also the most poetic one: Limiting yourself makes it more likely to achieve something great. If that doesn’t appeal to some Protestant, frugal logic inside of you, I don’t know what will.

But the lesson doesn’t just apply to photography: Having too many options can be overwhelming and caters to our lazy brains, which try to avoid coming up with creative solutions at all costs. Because of that, I believe that forcing yourself to do something is actually the most effective trick to achieve creative outcomes – and limiting yourself is the most effective way to enforce that decision.

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You may not care about football, but you might have heard about Louis van Gaal. He is a rather successful coach – and in many ways gifted: At his various stints managing clubs across Europe, he has not only been remarkably successful but also been able to miraculously pick up the language of each workplace. When Bayern Munich hired him, German must have come to him easily – after all, it is very similar to his native Dutch. He nevertheless made some mistakes: Expeced to hold press conferences and operating under the limit of his language capabilities, van Gaal stuck to the expressions he knew and translated them as he went along. This way, he unwittingly coined some phrases in German, the most famous one being “creating opportunities” – (“kansen creëren“ in Dutch, “Chancen kreieren“ in German).

After he had inserted the phrase into the language of German football, purists quickly started pointing out that opportunities really could not be created: They happen to you, and while you might be able to seize them, they certainly couldn’t be rushed along. But what van Gaal had really meant was to create the right circumstances for success by making it more likely for something desirable to happen. Place your players in the right spot, and they may hit the ball just so for it to fall into goal. And while you may not be able to engineer creativity, you can certainly take a page from van Gaal and create the right circumstances for it.

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“Resourceful“ is one of my favorite words in the English language. The dictionary defines it as “having the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties.“ But I mostly like it for the physical connotation it carries: Being resourceful sounds like you have a toolbox in your head, containing the exact resources to solve whatever puzzle life throws at you. And while neurology is much more complicated than that, the image caters to our way of making sense of the world: That problems have exact solutions, like locks have keys.

Unfortuntately, creativity doesn’t work that way. Practice all you want, amass all the tools out there (to stick with the image), and you might still find yourself out of solutions. The idea, then, is to become resourceful in the real sense of the world: By ensuring to be clever. After all, creativity is no exercise, it is having a fresh idea at the right time.

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I have been mulling that idea over for the past months when it came to my own photography and writing. When 2014 ended, I noticed that over the year, I had taken an unprecedented amount of photos. The reason for that was simple: I always had a camera on me, the one on my phone. It was in no way a capable as my trusty DSLR, but just as in the case of the fixed lens, less was ultimately more. The limitation forced me to think more creatively about how I could use that little camera. And use it I did. Experiencing its frustrating limitations made me realize what I could really do with the larger one – and I started approaching it differently.

If we all need to find some degree of limitation to unlock creativity, whether that is pen and paper, shooting film or simply having discipline, then I am more than willing to experiment with it. Because who knows, one day it might just result in standing in the right spot and hitting the ball home.

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