The Sound of One Hand Creating: Making the Most of Constraints

There's awesome power in constraints, which force us to be more creative, according to John Armato. Instead of complaining about constraints, why not learn to create within them?

What comes to mind when you think of a “creative” person? The angst-ridden artist? A maverick who rejects convention? The “guru” who seems to tap into a mystical vein of new ideas? You probably conjured up an amalgam of stereotypes that have to do with defying conformity and rejecting rules.

Railing against rules certainly has a home in creativity, but to leave it at that is to abandon creativity to the camp of anarchy. Less appreciated, I think, is the role — and the power — of limitations in producing creative outcomes.

I once ran across an especially compelling and articulate blog posting titled “Practical Creativity.” In it the writer, Chris Tacy, deals with the difference between constraint and compromise. Tacy is a fan of the designers Charles and Ray Eames and uses them as examples in his argument that compromise is more the enemy of creativity than constraint. His essay begins with this quote:

“I don’t remember being forced to accept compromises, but I’ve willingly accepted constraints.” — Charles Eames

I don’t know Tacy, but I’m jealous that he said so well what I wish I’d written.

Whether it’s Picasso limiting himself to shades of blue and green, Georges Perec writing an entire novel without the use of the letter “e” or Antonio Carlos Jobim composing a samba that – as the title of one of his most famous pieces suggests – uses just one note for its melody, artists through the ages have imposed constraints upon their own work, simply to see where they would lead, to test their abilities to create beauty and express ideas, or to enable function with the fewest elements possible.

Constraint isn’t just a tool for experimentation, however. It is frequently a necessity, the mother of focus. The first time I encountered this idea was while reading Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a cult classic since it was first published in 1974 — after 120 publishers turned it down.)

Among the musings on quality and the narrative about a father-son trek across country are stories of the protagonist’s days as a college rhetoric professor. He gives a class an assignment to write a paper on America. A student comes to him frustrated, not knowing what to write. So, he narrows her focus down to writing about her hometown of Bozeman. A short time later, she returns, more frustrated than before, complaining he can’t expect her to know where to begin writing about an entire city. So he progressively limits her to the main street of Bozeman, then to one building on that main street, then finally to the top right brick on the front of that building. He tells her to write about that one brick and not move on to the next until she exhausts the possibilities of the first brick. In short order, she has a new problem: What she’s written is pages longer than the assignment required.

Focus. Constraint. Creativity.

This idea was brought home to me rather dramatically one night when I was playing drums at a jazz jam session in New York’s Village area. I had been listening to and enjoying the host trio for several tunes before I noticed that the piano player, someone new to me named Dave Mathews (not the rocker) was playing everything with his left hand. His right hand was deformed and, musically, nearly useless, though you couldn’t tell by listening. His left hand covered the entire keyboard with runs and block chords, comping and soloing. Only occasionally would he use his right hand as if it was a single finger, plinking a note here and there, but it seemed like a token effort. I was blown away. Mathews could play with one hand behind his back — literally — and yet he could swing just as hard, and be just as musical, as most other piano players I’ve ever worked with.

Constraint. Not compromise.

In business our constraints are more likely to be inherent, like Mathews,’ than self-imposed, like Picasso’s or Perec’s. We complain about limited budgets, shortsighted goals, clients’ lack of imagination, absurd deadlines and more. But, like Charles Eames, our challenge is to accept constraints without yielding to compromise.

John Armato is a jazz drummer as well as a senior partner and creative strategist with Fleishman-Hillard International Communications. He invites browsing, commenting, and subscribing at “Think Inside The Box,” his blog about the creative process, communications and living a life of ideas at