Constraints are Critical

Creative Outliers – have you ever wondered why (external) deadlines seem to be such excellent motivators? Do you sometimes do your best work right before it is due? Creative outliers tend to be very curious people.  We can spend most of our time learning, sometimes, instead of expressing ourselves. This can be a seductive escape from putting ourselves on the line by exposing our creative output to others and even to ourselves, as we tend to be even more critical of our results or even works in progress than the outside world. Ever heard the phrase “paralyzed by perfectionism” or “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough” directed at you?

Most of us benefit from constraints. Sometimes we can even effectively supply those constraints internally instead of having to rely upon the outside commitments. Ultimately if creative outliers are to become innovators, we learn the power of applying constraints. Sometimes it is simply a matter of needing to get paid by honoring external commitments. 

What if there are no external constraints? What if there are no external commitments? What if there are no deadlines? Will the new hybrid, partially virtual world we are moving toward increase the need for us to apply constraints internally? And what constraints other than time apply? How about skill, talent, equipment, collaborators and money? How about the timeliness of your contribution? Or windows of opportunity? Or in more general terms the market? 

Hopefully, we creative outliers get to the point where we welcome constraints because they can and usually do save us from ourselves. Almost every time a creative person completes a work or a project, they can immediately tell themselves what should or could have been done differently to improve things. Hey, we are trying to harness infinity here. Of course, we rarely run out of ideas. 

In addition to having been paralyzing myself by perfectionism and being told by the president of Cogswell Polytechnical College, where I was a dean, to stop making the perfect the enemy of the good enough, I once received a surprisingly relevant piece of advice from Amar G. Bose, then the Chairman of Bose Corporation where I worked for the decade from 1980 to 1990. 

I was trying to convince him of my latest idea that we had to rapidly move into some new market because the window of opportunity was now. He laughed and said, “When I founded Bose Corporation, there were already 75 speaker companies in the United States, and now there are 300. Bose Corporation’s revenue is larger than the other 299 combined”. He elaborated and I am paraphrasing here; you do not have to worry about when you get to the party if you are the best one there. What you have to worry about and focus all of your energy on is being the best you can be and showing up. Now, conventional wisdom, with its short-term orientation, would probably dismiss this advice. I have often recalled what he said, as he truly had built a powerful and dominant company in the audio world, which even today is an extremely valuable brand.

Amar Bose is no longer with us, and there may not be anyone left at the company defending this particular stance. As an outsider, the company does not appear to be doing as well as when he was defending the integrity of his ideas regarding how to be in the highly competitive consumer electronics market. Of course, Dr. Bose was aware of deadlines and shipping products; he was running a profitable multi-billion dollar privately held enterprise. 

I wonder about the dynamic nature of balancing constraints as part of the creative process. We each have a pile of potential constraints, as does every person in the world. Presidents, dictators and CEOs alike all have resource and time constraints. Almost no one has as much money or time as they can imagine using as we each have to manage within limits.

But if we are to harness the infinity within, we can not let these constraints overwhelm us and instead use them as critical to our creative processes because they represent forces of convergence that we each desperately need in order to stop learning and start shipping results. Hopefully, we can show up with the best results we can deliver!