Advertising
Advertising

Limits and Creativity

Limits and Creativity

Nikon SLR

    I want to tell you a story about two photographers.

    For a while now, I’ve been wanting to get more into photography, hoping eventually to buy a nice digital SLR camera. So I was quite thrilled when a photojournalist friend offered to give me some of her old film equipment to learn on. The camera, a Nikon FM2, is a fully manual model first introduced almost 30 years ago. It only uses a battery to run the light meter, and the battery on the one she gave me is burnt out — and I’ve been forbidden to replace it.

    Advertising

    Her thinking is this: if I’m serious about learning how a camera works, I need to hone my skills and instincts so I get a feel for how to put together a good image. A more modern camera (like the later-model auto-focus Nikon she also doesn’t use anymore) wouldn’t teach me that; instead, it would teach me how to use the camera’s bells and whistles.

    I have another friend who is also a photographer, and I was excited to share with her the news of my new setup. She was more or less unimpressed until I told her what kind of camera it was, then she lit up. “Oh, that’s good — you’ll learn a lot from that!” Then we got to discussing her preference for Nikon cameras, and among other things she said she liked the black-and-white mode in Nikon’s best.

    “Really?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to convert to black-and-white in Photoshop, where you have far more control over the process?”

    Advertising

    I might have been asking the Pope about his sex life — the response was rather chilly. Photoshop, to her, was a substitute for skill. Learning to make the best use of what you have in your hands, that’s photography for her, not applying the near-limitless potential of an image program.

    Both of these photographers were telling me something interesting about not just photography but about… well, about life. They were telling me to stop resisting limits and embrace them as part of the process of creativity. Yes, the Nikon FM2 is a pretty limited camera — that’s what makes it a great learning tool (and, for that matter, it’s what makes it a model that’s remained popular over 3 decades of photographic advance, one that’s still found in many a pro’s toolkit). Yes, in-camera black-and-white is far more limiting than the vast possibilities unleashed by Photoshop — that’s what makes it an art. To embrace those limits and make something beautiful is to accomplish something extraordinary.

    I can’t help but think of those legendary million monkeys pounding away at a million typewriters. In all that flow of randomness, eventually a string of characters will emerge that tells the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and his stunning descent into madness and eventually death. But it’s the labor of one man, William Shakespeare (or another man posing as Mr. S), scratching away with his goose-feather quill by the dim light of a beeswax candle, groping for the perfect words in the near-dark, that stuns us — one man working with all the limitations of his life and times, all the limitations of the medium and of his mind. That is what elevates a play like Hamlet to the level of art.

    Advertising

    Aside from a lack of resources — who, after all, has a million monkey laying around and that kind of time to wait? — there are good reasons to oppose unboundedness, to reject a lack of limits. Creativity doesn’t stem from limitlessness. Over and over again, creative people not only challenge limits but seek them out — artists choose a limited palette to paint an image with, musicians strip a complicated arrangement down to voice and acoustic guitar, writers cut and cut and cut again to reach a thousand-word length, and my photographer friend willingly embraces the quirks of her camera’s black-and-white mode over the power of Photoshop.

    That’s the gift my photojournalist friend gave me: limits. She knew that for under $500 I could pick up a decent used digital SLR setup. But on a digital camera, it would be easy to just learn how to harness the power of the camera — to let it do my focusing, metering, white balancing, and everything else for me. I might learn good composition, but I wouldn’t learn photography.

    The education of an artist or craftsperson consists mainly in learning about limits; I would argue that their creative spark comes from embracing those limits. That’s good advice for the rest of us, who spend quite a bit of time bemoaning the limitations forced on us by our circumstances without even trying to understand them. My advice — or rather, my friends’ advice — is this: understand your limits, embrace them, and use them.

    Advertising

    It’s what they’re there for.

    More by this author

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    Trending in Featured

    1 Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed 2 12 Rules for Self-Management 3 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on October 15, 2019

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why we procrastinate after all

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

    Advertising

    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    So, is procrastination bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

    Advertising

    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How bad procrastination can be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

    Advertising

    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

    Advertising

    8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

    Procrastination, a technical failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next