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Limits and Creativity

Limits and Creativity
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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 November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)
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    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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