Your Biggest Challenge Is Your Secret Weapon
Our society does a great job at inspiring, encouraging, and sometimes even demanding that we dream big and aim for uniqueness. I’ve fallen for it, too. I spent years of my life pushing myself to think as originally as I possibly could whenever I was brainstorming new art projects. But what I seem to learn over and over again is that the grand, super-original ideas I have, the ones that are truly outside the box, are also so far outside my realm of possibility that they’re almost useless.
So, at a certain point, I began to resist the idea of thinking wildly outside the box.
This small mental shift continues to have huge implications on my life and creativity. I decided: Instead of trying to shoot for the crazy huge idea and waiting months or years to do so, why not focus my creativity to work with what I have, and literally use the limitations of my life to push me creatively? When I realized this, it took my work to a transcendent place.
To Deepen Your Thinking, You Need More Constraints
Giving your mind free reign is the worst thing you can do for your focus, creativity, and ability to solve problems
It’s so easy to view our limitations as though they’re blocking us from achieving our creative goals. But what if your limitations can be a source of your creativity? I’ve seen it happen in my own life; my TED Talk a while back was based on this concept. The moment I walked off the stage at that talk, people began to ask me how they could embrace their own limitations. I’ll be honest: I couldn’t advise them. My only explanation was that my ability to live my life doing what I loved depended on my willingness to completely reframe how I thought about struggle.
In high school, I developed a hand tremor. I was obsessed with pointillism at the time, and the shake would mess up my drawings. It wasn’t long before my right hand shook all day, every day. I thought my art career was over before it began, and I was devastated. I ended up dropping out of art school. I quit making art entirely.
An appointment with a neurologist confirmed that the shake was permanent.
It was like being a hairstylist with carpal tunnel who can’t hold scissors or a comb; a chef who can’t chop because of arthritis in the wrists. Who would I be if I couldn’t make art? What the hell would I do with the rest of my life?
As if he could hear my thoughts while I sat slumped in the chair, the doctor did something a little unexpected: He chimed in with advice. “Why don’t you just embrace the shake?” he said. I could tell from his face that he was being sincere. It led me to wonder: Could I really find a way to make art with the shake? What if I took his advice literally?
One afternoon, I pinned a piece of paper to the wall. Then I grabbed a pencil and started to draw. I didn’t try to control the shake. I let my hand go wild, shaking and scribbling with every stroke. I played with the scribbles, toying around to see if there was some way I could make them work for me. I made light shades, dark shades, gradients, and so on. I was actually starting to see some interesting results, so I began drawing pictures with just scribbles. And it was at this point that I felt something I hadn’t felt in years: happiness.
Drawing with scribbles felt liberating. It made me laugh because it felt so silly to create art this way — and even sillier that I hadn’t just tried it before. Unbeknownst to me, what I’d thought would be a career killer was about to transform how I explored every facet of creativity.
I began to experiment with other ways of making art. I missed pointillism and contemplated why I liked it so much. It was because there was such a magic, such a satisfaction, in stepping back from all those little dots to marvel at the completeness of an image made of fragments. Those little specks each contributed to something grand and powerful.
So, I tried messing around with making fragmented pictures, essentially using different materials as individual dots. This exploration led me to work with nontraditional materials — like painting with my feet, burning wood with a blowtorch, or grinding away at wood with power tools. Because of my physical limitation, I found myself exploring the far reaches of my imagination. I had embraced my shake, and that choice led me to discover so much more about my potential.