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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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