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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 March 31, 2020

    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.

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    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.

    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.

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    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.

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    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: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    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.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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