How thinking INSIDE the box makes you more creative

by | June 4, 2012

“Thinking outside the box,” you’ve been told, is the path to boundless creativity and record-shattering innovation.

In fact, it is precisely limitations and constraints that spark your most creative ideas and generate the most practical and innovative solutions.

Your constraints hold the key to our freedom.

Consider an exercise: For which of these two challenges could you generate the most practical, implementable ideas in ten minutes:

1. Create a business.

2. Create an online business that:

  • Leverages your particular interests and passions (the more clearly defined, the better).
  • Requires no more than $1,000 to start.
  • Can be operated in 10 hours per week or less.
  • Can generate at least $2,000 net profit per month.

“When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas.” -T.S. Eliot

The first challenge has no box, no defined limitations. And that’s precisely why you draw a blank.

Or, the exercise may spark interesting ideas, but the vast majority of them are worthless and unworkable.

Creativity doesn’t simply mean having an abundance of ideas. It means actually creating concrete, useful solutions that create value in the world.

The second challenge is a clearly-defined box, which is exactly why it engages your imagination and sparks practical ideas much more easily.

This is what Ernie Schenck calls the “Houdini Solution” in his empowering book, The Houdini Solution: Put Creativity and Innovation to Work by Thinking Inside the Box.

Houdini was successful, says Schenck, because he accepted his self-imposed limitations and worked within their confines.

His straitjackets, chains, ropes, locks, coffins didn’t hold him captive — in fact, they defined his success. Writes Schenck:

“[Houdini] accepted the box. He accepted the water inside the box. He accepted the chains and the locks. Rather than allowing his mind to be consumed with the problem, he directed all of his energy toward solving it.”

Like Houdini’s chains, you have inescapable constraints in your business or job, your marriage, your relationships, your physical abilities — in virtually every aspect of your life.

You can spend your life bemoaning your fate, or you can accept your limitations and work within them to become more creative, innovative, and successful than you ever could have been without them.

Nick Vujicic was born with no arms or legs. Rather than lounging on the couch dreaming of flying, he waddles on stumps onto stages and wows crowds with his indomitable spirit. As Ernie Schenck reveals:

“The biggest secret of truly productive creative people is that they embrace obstacles, they don’t run from them. In their minds every setback is an opportunity, every limitation is a chance. Where others see a wall, they see a doorway.”

If you can’t recognize and accept your constraints, you’ll be forever enslaved by them. Ironically, only by embracing them will solutions arise.

“Creativity requires limits, for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings and against that which limits them.” -Rollo May

But your “box” is defined by more than constraints. It’s also defined by assets. In fact, accepting your constraints helps you recognize assets you haven’t seen before.

“What I wouldn’t give for a holocaust cloak.” -Wesley on The Princess Bride, when faced with the challenge of defeating sixty men with three

Potential assets remain unrecognized, unvalued, and unleveraged until you’re forced into a corner.

This is why so many heroic entrepreneurs have emerged during this recession. They’ve taken a hard look at their circumstances. They’ve accepted the constraints imposed by a crashed economy. They’ve played the hand they were dealt, rather than folding in despair.

Life will never deal you a full house. Instead, it’s given you a box with tough constraints. But within the framework of those constraints — and the assets they reveal — is the key to your freedom.

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