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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.

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    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?”

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    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.

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    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.

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    It’s what they’re there for.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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