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How restrictions can make your work better
Norms and limits are for suckers. Creativity means always finding a way.
This is part of my “Art of Noticing” series, in which I learn, find, or discover the things around me that usually go unnoticed and turn them into an endless source of creative inspiration.
Today, I learned why my town’s new Whataburger is a “Digital Kitchen” instead of a sit-down restaurant. From fast food to art, there’s a lesson in the answer: that restrictions can actually set artists free.
In the spot where a perfectly good Taco Bell used to be, Texas mainstay Whataburger built itself a “Digital Kitchen.” That sounded unnecessarily buzzworthy to me — like, what; kids will go because digital things are cool? But it turns out that Digital Kitchens are takeout only: You order online, then pick up and go. That seemed just as dumb. Why not just make a restaurant?
My daughter found the answer. Apparently there’s a sort of “restaurant curfew” around here. Restaurants can only be open until 9pm, which is kind of crappy for those of us who sometimes want food later.
“Digital Kitchens,” though, can be open as late as they want. And that’s when I saw the lesson: It’s about creative adaptation … about getting past a rule that can’t be changed.
Obviously, that’s something all creators know. What creator follows all the rules? What good artist ever colored entirely inside the lines?
In my experience, constraints can go far beyond neutral, though — far beyond something to be gotten around. Rather, limitations can be very good for us. They require creativity, if you want to make good art inside those lines. They force us to explore avenues we might have otherwise overlooked.
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Here's how this "noticing" can benefit my stories and art:
1. Embracing Limitations as Opportunities
Instead of viewing constraints as obstacles, seeing them as unique opportunities can lead to fresh, unconventional ideas.
If you’re a storyteller, try writing a book that takes place in an hour of clock time, or in one location. Limit the length to very short, or require a very long length. I once wrote a book (Axis of Aaron) with a story that had to be based entirely on its pre-existing book cover because the cover was awesome and we wanted to use it. I loved the resulting book, but it wouldn’t exist if not for the limit of its image.
2. The Art of Pivoting
Even if there are no restraints, the exercise of adapting (even if only for the sake of adapting!) is a good exercise for creators. Being adaptable and open to change ensures that we remain resilient and innovative in our creative pursuits.
Remember, innovation isn’t always about having unlimited freedom. Sometimes it’s about working within the lines and still making a masterpiece, like a painter who only works in black, white, and shades of grey.
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