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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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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