Creating Conditions for Creativity

A recent article in the New York Times by Patricia Cohen about Chuck Close, reminded me of the importance of a concept I learned about in art school called ‘enabling constraints’. Basically, this concept means that constraints can actually enable things to happen. This might seem illogical at first. Most would think that when we take away constraints, it enables things to happen. What at first seems counter intuitive, an oxymoron even, starts to sound familiar when we think about people who face extreme limitations and succeed despite them.

The life story and work of Chuck Close is an interesting example of this concept. He was born with prosopagnosia, a condition that prevents him from recognizing faces. He explains that his work has been guided by his disability. In fact, his work centers around portraits. “I figured out what I had left and I tried to make it work for me, limitations are important.” He explained in the recent New York Times article.

Creativity is Born out of Constraints

How many times have you heard the phrase, “We were forced to be creative with what we had.”? When constraints are introduced we are forced to think differently. Everyday, the human mind tries to find short cuts, habits, ways of doing things the same way to reduce effort. Constraints offer a challenge to this tendency and force us to change our patterns of thinking to match a changing situation. Juan Carlos Castro of UBC in a paper prepared for the 2007 Complexity Science and Education Research Conference describes Enabling Constraints as conditions that allow us to “enter into spaces of uncertainty and be able to reorganize previous understandings into new patterns of knowing about themselves in the world.”

How is this Important to our Children’s Future Success?

In a study made famous by Ken Robinson, IBM interviewed CEO’s from around the world to gauge what skills that are in demand in our current labour climate. Creativity is identified as the most important skill they are seeking in employees. In particular, the aspect of creativity that allows people to act despite uncertainty: the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

As Ken Robinson says, creativity is being educated out of us. Given that creativity is in demand, our children are in trouble. We need to reorient education so it matches the experiences of employees now and in a future of ever changing conditions. Arts and Leadership Education are excellent training grounds for creativity because of how they use the concept of enabling constraints. They both give students practice working on solutions in an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Why Arts and Leadership Education?

Both Arts and Leadership Education use the practice of setting up constraints to stimulate creativity. For example, Juan Carlos Castro describes asking his photography students, “What would a self portrait look like if you were not actually in it?” In theatre, for example, students may be asked, “how would you communicate the emotion of this scene without talking?”

Leadership challenges are group initiatives that are constructed to force people out of their normal patterns of thought and stimulate their creativity. For example, a group is asked, “How will you move a giant ball across the room with your entire group holding hands?” Seems easy right? Then constraints are introduced such as, “No one can touch the ball with their hands or feet.” and “The ball cannot touch the ground.” Immediately the room fills with a buzz of ideas.

Practicing this way of thinking changes the way we approach the world. We tend to embrace complexity and change as something natural and are able to work within the changing constraints that life throws at us. When life forces us to change our thought patterns, if we accept this challenge, amazing things can happen.