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Limits Revisited

Limits Revisited

Limits Revisited

    Earlier this week, I wrote a post about limits and how limits engender creativity. Unfortunately, I opened with a lengthy discussion of my recent forays into SLR photography, and the point of that post seems to have gotten lost. Since it’s an important point, I thought I’d revisit it, this time without talking about cameras.

    As humans, we are limited beings. We have no wings, claws, or gills. We are bound by gravity, thermodynamics, and conservation of energy. We are born into specific cultures, receive specific educations, and interact with specific people. As a 6-year old child once told me when the TV said he could be anything he wanted to be, “That’s not true, you know. You can’t be God. Or a tree.”

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    Yet when we discuss creativity, we speak as if we were unlimited, as if creativity were all about transcending limits. We speak of limitless imagination, boundless enthusiasm, and infinite possibilities. We look down on those who accept their limitations, and admire those who seem to overcome theirs.

    I want to suggest that creativity does not lie in the realm of the infinite but in the realm of the finite indeed – the bounded, the minimized, the limited. And not just that it is the experience of limits that inspires us to be creative in order to overcome them – that’s too easy, too everyday. No, that it is the limits themselves that create creativity.

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    The limits of materiality

    Consider a musician. A musician is always aware of the limitations on his or her music-making. The nature of the instrument he or she plays is a limitation. Her or his cultural musical tradition is a limitation – as is the way that tradition shapes his or her experience of other culture’s musical traditions. The scales, modes, and chord forms he or she has learned are a limitation. Even the music she or he plays is a limitation.

    The best musicians might push at these limitations, work to expand them – but  they do so from within, not in a giant leap beyond. Free jazz, for example, takes its meaning as much from the traditions and structures the musicians reject as from the actual notes they’re playing (on instruments that themselves are limited). And, of course, other great musicians not only accept but respect the limitations of the music they’ve inherited – a Mozart performance is no place for a 3rd chair violinist to discover the infinite!

    For a photographer, it is the nature of the lens glass, the character of the film or of the sensor array, the quirks of the shutter mechanism, and of course the quality of the light that all conspire to limit and create the composition. For writers, it is the inherited words, meters, and idioms of their language that limits and inspires great poetry. For painters, it is the consistency of the paint, the texture of the canvas, and the heft of the brush that limit and guide their portraiture.

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    We speak of art, of music, of creativity in general as a kind of magic force, an invisible and immaterial thing that emanates unstructured and unbounded from the mind of the genius. But creativity doesn’t flow freely – it arises from and is embodied in the limited world around us. It may press up against the limitations of the material with which we create, but it never exceeds them. The brilliance of a Jimi Hendrix, a Pablo Picasso, an Ansel Adams is not in their exceeding the limits of the guitar, of paint and canvas, or of photographic emulsions, it’s in their relationship with their mediums and the limits that each artists’ medium imposes.

    The importance of limits

    Why does this matter? Why take not one but two posts to make this point clear?

    We have transformed into a society of ideas. Creativity is the raw material of the information economy. The Internet has given us a channel for dissemination of ideas unprecedented in the history of humankind, and yet I think the critics are right – we have taken one of the greatest advances in human history and cluttered it with all kinds of crap. And I think we can do better – if we can only rid ourselves of this misguided notion of human creativity as something separate from and beyond human capacity.

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    So many people ignore their creative urges, feeling that they are too limited to “really” be creative – the lack experience, time, training, money, whatever. So I want to rethink our relationship with limits, to recognize that the people who are most creative are not the people who were least limited but the people who embraced and drew inspiration from their limits.

    I  think of the poet Audre Lorde, who writes of scratching out poems on dime-store notebooks between loads of laundry, cooking meals, and the other pressures of motherhood. I think of Stephen King, who abandoned his huge stately desk in favor of a writing table in the corner. I think of painters who learn not by painting the world but by painting an empty bottle and a piece of fruit, or writers who embrace the challenge of writing prompts or of NaNoWriMo (where writers attempt to write a novel in a month), or musicians’ love affairs with the particular quirks and oddities of their instruments.

    And in the end, I  think of all of us, bound in a thousand different ways that could, if we’d just let it, engender a thousand different creativities. I’m arguing that rather than giving up before the things that limit us, we should surrender to them, in the way a sculptor surrenders to the cleavage planes of a stone or the grain of a block of wood – surrender, and see what we can create out of those limits.

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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

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    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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