Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Rules Foster Creativity

Too Many Choices

Somehow, having boundaries seems to encourage people to be creative; whereas having unlimited options paralyzes and results in complete inaction. There must be some law of psychology* about being overwhelmed by options: I know I'm not the only one who has observed this.

Seth Godin writes in Small is the new big:

We resort to tradition. If you have too many clothes, you have too many choices of what to wear. Instead of rummaging through your piles and closets full of clothes to put together a new and creative outfit, you stick with your tried&true favorites. There are too many options so you pick something you've picked before. Your creativity is paralyzed from the unlimited possibilities so you choose something safe.

But sometimes it's rewarding to choose the non-traditional, not-so-safe option. Give yourself guidelines, rules, and boundaries, and you'll find a way to thrive.

In the 30 for 30 Style Remix Challenge, bloggers choose 30 items from their existing wardrobe and, for 30 days, mix & match those items to creatively put together outfits every day. I participated once and found it to be an enjoyable challenge. Instead of staring down a closet filled with choices, I could only pick from my 30 items. It forced me to be creative. Having an unlimited closet to pick from sounds like it would be the perfect palette for a creative masterpiece of an outfit, but it's too much. Without rules, it's like walking into a huge art supply store and being told, "make something."

In school, teachers seem to have this idea of boundaries figured out. Assignments are created to teach you something specific, of course, but the rules outlined in a project foster creativity, too. Students love a challenge; they love to find ways to bend the rules, even if it's just the 'rules' of the assignment. Studying art in college, some of my most successful art projects were the ones where I didn't follow the rules.

Example: figure drawing from a live model. Professor was likely expecting our results to look like this:

...instead mine looked like this, the model crowded out by doodles of still life, cats, and cat food.

Although we are bombarded with thousands of options pretty much everywhere we go, limiting your options can make decision-making a whole lot easier and fun. When you're working within a set of rules, you force yourself to be creative with what you have. Accept the challenge!

*Edit (10/27/2011): turns out this whole concept IS studied in psychology! This TED talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz gives a good intro: Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice.

1 comment:

  1. This whole post is excellent because it's so true. I know that I frequently feel paralyzed and overwhelmed with indecision when faced with obscene arrays of options. I need enough freedom to pick and choose what I want to do and which rules I want to bend or break in my creativity, and I like it when there are sufficient choices that everyone can make different ones...but unless I can feel very confident about my choices, I do much better when some limits exist. Especially ones I can't control, anyway, since they narrow things down naturally.


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