Look for Limitations

When Phil Hansen was in art school, he developed a shake in his hand that prevented him from drawing a straight line. He was interested in pointillism at the time, but the technique exacerbated the problem to the extent that eventually he gave up art. The shake in his hand didn’t go away. The neurologist who told him he had permanent nerve damage suggested he “embrace the shake.” So he did.

Embracing the shake meant embracing limitation, which is what led him to discover that working on a larger scale with bigger materials was easier on his hand.

This was the first time I encountered the idea that embracing limitation could actually drive creativity.

In the video below of his TEDx talk in Kansas City, Hansen says:

I realized that if I ever wanted my creativity back I had to stop trying so hard to think outside of the box and get back into it.

He set out to impose all kinds of constraints on the art he created. The image at the top of this post was the result of his intention to create something for under a dollar. (When he asked someone at Starbucks for 50 empty cups, he got them.)

You become more creative by actually looking for limitations.

He’s written a book about creating art aimed at “kids” from 8 to 70 titled Tattoo a Banana: And Other Ways to Turn Anything and Everything Into Art.

Looking at limitations as the source of creativity changed my life.

It’s impossible to create anything, do anything, or just be (alive) without experiencing limitations. The trick is not only to look for limitations, but also to embrace them.

Demystifying Creativity

demystifying creativityEach day, we create thoughts, ideas, meals, impressions, relationships, goals, deals, situations, and objects of all types, shapes, and sizes. We create sadness, happiness, love, peace, violence, and everything in between. We create order out of chaos and chaos out of order. Our creations run the gamut from tiny to monumental, practical to completely frivolous, transitory to long-lasting, and helpful to harmful. I had fun writing about some of the things I created when I was in elementary school.

To a great extent, we also create ourselves.

Yet, the many myths and mysteries surrounding creativity get in the way of our ability to unleash our full creative potential. So let’s do a little myth-busting and demystifying.

What is creativity?

There are many different definitions of creativity, some of which are quite complex. I think simpler is better. Creativity is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things.

Is there a difference between actually creating something and just thinking creatively?

Some creativity “experts” make this distinction and suggest that unless the creative form (the new idea or object) is widely accepted (valued) in the field within which it was generated, it isn’t entirely legitimate. But that seems like a very high bar and one most people would fail.

Certainly creative thinking is a prerequisite for being able to create something new. But being a creative thinker has many rewards apart from the products of creativity. For example, compared to a non-creative thinker, a creative thinker is less likely to be bored, is more likely to have greater problem-solving abilities, and is very likely to get more general enjoyment out of life.

Is creativity something you’re born with or can you train yourself to be creative?

Based on their orientation to tradition, authority, and conformity, some personality types may have a greater or lesser tendency to think creatively. But everyone has the ability to be creative, and people who are already creative can become more creative.

Is being creative the same as being artistic?

Absolutely not. This is one of the biggest myths about creativity. Creativity is extremely useful, even necessary, in mathematics, science, computer technology, education, medicine, business, and many other “non-creative” fields. It may be even more important to note that being artistic is not the same as being creative.

Do you have to be “right-brained” in order to be creative?

The myth of people being either “right-brained” or “left-brained” has contributed to the stereotype of the free-spirited creative person who is high on imagination and low on logic and practicality. Although the two sides of the brain do have different functions, they are in constant communication with each other and both are essential to creative thinking.

Are creative people more eccentric than other people (maybe even a bit mad)?

Well, in the case of highly creative people, the answer seems to be…maybe yes; maybe no. For more on the link between creativity and mental illness, you can read this post with links to some of the research. But learning how to think more creatively is unlikely to lead you down the slippery slope to eccentricity or madness if you weren’t already traveling along that path.

Is brainstorming an effective technique for increasing creativity?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes and no. Beginning with a group brainstorming session is not the best approach to creative problem solving. But research shows that if the members of the group first consider possible solutions on their own before participating with the group, group brainstorming produces more numerous and better quality ideas.

How practical is creativity in the real world?

As counterintuitive as it may sound, creativity may be the best hope we have for solving most, if not all, of the real-world problems that now exist. As Einstein is quoted as having said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Think INside the Box

The concept of thinking outside the box is a metaphor for thinking differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. It’s also a cliché about clichéd thinking. You can’t actually think outside the box, anyway, since you are constrained by the mental model your brain constructs and maintains for you. The mental model is the box, and you are always inside it. Contrary to some branches of popular thought, that’s not a bad thing.

Here’s a story that’s meant to illustrate thinking outside the box but that’s actually an excellent example of just the opposite—thinking inside the box.

Island of Safety*

On August 5, 1949, 15 firefighters and their foreman, Wag Dodge, were airlifted to Mann Gulch in Montana to extinguish what they thought would be a relatively small brush fire on one side of the gulch. They parachuted onto the opposite side of the gulch, joined one fire guard, and began descending with the wind at their backs.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the wind reversed, and the fire jumped over to ignite the grass on their side. As the flames rapidly approached them, the men began to climb the slope to try to outrun the fire, pausing only to drop their heavy equipment.

But Dodge, the foreman, realized the fire was moving too quickly for that to work. He stopped and lit the grass in front of him with a match. The dry grass immediately caught fire and the wind blew the fire up the side of the gulch, away from him. That left a patch of charred ground Dodge crawled onto. When the advancing fire arrived, it flowed around and then away from his island of safety.

The other men misunderstood what he was doing and in spite of his exhortations for them to join him, continued up the slope. Only two, who had found shelter in a narrow crevice, survived.

Notice that it was the foreman who had the idea to fight fire with fire.

As the foreman, Dodge presumably had more experience and knowledge than the men he was supervising. The other firefighters not only didn’t come up with the idea, they also didn’t understand it when he showed it to them. The “box” Dodge was thinking inside was different from the boxes of the other men.

While you can’t escape thinking from inside your own box, you can continually remodel and expand it, thereby increasing your possibilities for original, innovative, and creative thinking.

Here’s another thinking-inside-the-box example.


Andrew Stanton of Pixar Animation Studios was working on the screenplay for WALL-E, about the last robot left on a hopelessly polluted earth abandoned by humans. He was struggling with the design of WALL-E’s face, which he wanted to be both machinelike and expressive.

At a baseball game one day, he borrowed binoculars from someone sitting next to him. When he mistakenly turned them around so that the lenses were on the wrong side, he realized the binoculars looked like a face. After flexing the inner hinges several times to create different facial expressions, he decided WALL-E would look like a “binocular on a stem.”

Stanton had been writing and directing animated films for 20 years by the time he started working on WALL-E. He had already framed—and attempted to solve—the problem of WALL-E’s appearance before his binocular incident. And just as Wag Dodge did, he had a vast reservoir of experience and knowledge to draw upon.

The contents and the connections inside his box made it possible for him to come up with the solution.

The best things you can do for yourself to live a healthy (on every level) life also happen to be the best things you can do to expand your mental model: learn, move, create, challenge yourself; repeat.

*The two stories were drawn from The Eureka Factor by John Kounios and Mark Beeman.

Z Is for Zombie Systems

What could zombie systems (also known as alien subroutines) and blindfolded cup-stacking possibly have to do with behavior change? Quite a bit, as it turns out. But first, what exactly are these zombie systems and alien subroutines? According to David Eagleman in Incognito:

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Eagleman uses the terms interchangeably. He says the term zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.

Some alien subroutines are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry.

Cup-Stacking Smack-Down

Cup-stacking, at least as performed by Austin Nabor, is an example of a highly automated algorithm—and thus a zombie system.

Nabor has been practicing all the moves involved in cup-stacking regularly for several years. As a result, physical changes have taken place in his brain to hard-wire cup-stacking. He can now perform it automatically without thinking about it, which is why he can do just as well when he’s blindfolded as he can when he can see what he’s doing.

In the video (link above), 10-year-old Nabor faces off against David Eagleman mano-a-mano, as it were, and hands him a resounding defeat. Eagleman said of the contest that he wasn’t even an eighth of the way through his routine when Nabor finished. During the competition, both were fitted with skull caps to monitor electrical activity in their brains. Instead of burning more energy to complete his complex cup-stacking routine speedily and flawlessly, Nabor’s brain used considerably less energy than Eagleman’s brain used to perform the routine much more slowly. In fact, Eagleman described Nabor’s brain as serene.

Eagleman’s brain burned more energy because he had to think about what he was doing and conscious thought burns more energy than zombie systems and alien subroutines burn.

When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Your brain rewrites itself based on the things you repeatedly practice, such has hitting a ball with a bat, driving, or swimming. Some of those things could be classified as skills while others might better be classified as habits. Whether they are skills or habits, once they become “etched into the circuitry of the brain,” you lose conscious control over them. Your brain doesn’t particularly care what skills or habits (good or bad) are turned into zombie systems. The purpose of the process, as Eagleman says, is to free up resources, allowing the conscious you to attend to and absorb other tasks.

Because you lose conscious control of zombie systems and they run automatically, it’s quite difficult to change them—to put it mildly.

Learning to Ride the Backwards Bicycle

Engineer Destin Sandlin, creator of the website Smarter Every Day, was challenged to ride a bicycle that had been modified so that when you turn the handlebars to the right, the wheel turns left, and when you turn the handlebars to the left, the wheel turns right. Watch him try—and fail—to ride the bike, and then offer to pay other people if they are able to ride the bike 10 feet.

“Once you have a rigid way of thinking,” Sandlin says, “you cannot change that, even if you want to.” Riding a bicycle, for most of us, is a hard-wired zombie system. Since we don’t have conscious control over the bicycle-riding algorithm, knowing that the bicycle has been altered has no effect on our ability to modify the algorithm—at least not right away.

It took Sandlin eight months of regular practice to learn how to ride the backwards bicycle. However, he noticed that the old pathway was still there and minor distractions, such as a cell phone ringing, could cause his brain to “jump back on the old road it was more familiar with.”

Sandlin’s young son, on the other hand, who had been riding a bicycle for three years, required only two weeks to get the hang of the modified bicycle.

When Sandlin attempted to ride a normal bicycle again after having more or less mastered the backwards bicycle, he couldn’t do it at first. But after about 20 minutes, his brain slipped back into gear, and he was able to remain upright. Think about that when you’re struggling with changing a habit you’ve had for years or maybe even decades. It takes a great deal of repetition and persistence to master a replacement behavior but very little provocation to revert back to the old path.

Consciousness on the Sidelines

Having the knowledge, information, or even will to change your behavior are all System 2 (conscious) processes. They’re certainly useful and even desirable. But a habit is a System 1 (unconscious) zombie system that is not immediately responsive to your conscious intentions or attentions.

In fact, those System 2 processes can sometimes get in the way. Eagleman says:

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. As an example…I mentioned that thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea!), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

Essentially we come up with conscious explanations for unconscious systems we have no access to. When we think we understand something, but we don’t, we’re likely to also think we know what to do about it. But we don’t.

If your brain is running an alien subroutine or a zombie system you don’t want it to run, you have to make like Destin Sandlin and practice the new routine over and over and over again. And you have to be prepared to have your brain “correct” you back to your old behavior at the least provocation.

When that happens, it’s far more productive to get back up on the horse—or bicycle—than it is to create a story about it.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

Y Is for Yesses

Your unconscious shrugs off neutral or positive news or experiences, sometimes barely registering them, and hones in on the negative. You have a stronger emotional reaction to negative stimuli, which increases the likelihood you’ll remember it. Since it takes less time for negative experiences to get stored in memory, your unconscious has more negative memories to draw on than positive ones when it’s evaluating information. And negative experiences affect you longer. As Rick Hanson famously says:

Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

That’s because your brain’s main concern is your survival, so it’s primed to detect threats. Positive things may indeed help you survive. But negative things can kill you. It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s better to expect and prepare for a possible threat than to be surprised or ambushed by one.

It’s easy to forget you’re operating with essentially the same brain your ancestors on the savanna had—a brain that doesn’t necessarily deal effectively with the stimulation, stressors, and sheer volume of information you have to contend with in modern daily life.

The brain is, first and foremost, a survival tool, and the way that it has found to be most effective at guaranteeing survival is through the threat and reward response. Put simply, your brain will cause you to move away from threats and move toward rewards. —Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work

This may not seem particularly problematic until you realize that, in additional to actual survival needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) and actual physical threats, each of us has personalized our threat-detection system to include situations we have defined as threatening. And once your brain gets the idea that something is a threat, it responds as if it is facing a literal threat to your physical survival.

Your brain automatically looks for what isn’t working: the threats, the slights, the hurts, the things that fall apart or don’t go your way. And because the unconscious part of your brain uses associative thinking, it is all too easy to get on a negative track and stay there. One thing leads to another, or one similar thought reminds you of another similar thought, and before you know it, your mood and your attitude have soured, and your ability to refocus your attention has evaporated.

Count Your Yesses

You can’t stop your brain from noticing the negative, and it wouldn’t even be a good idea to try. But neither do you have to give in to it. The advice to count your blessings comes to mind, but I find blessings to be a loaded word on several levels. I prefer to count my yesses. It’s an effective way to turn the tide when I notice I’ve mentally starting traveling along that road to nowhere.

Although I tend to be pretty optimistic and upbeat, the first thing I noticed when I began this practice was how much easier it is to count my nos. Because the nos are brought to our attention by System 1, the part of the brain that is always on and processes 11,000,000 bits of information at a time, they come to mind immediately and automatically. Counting yesses, on the other hand, requires intention, which is a function of System 2, the conscious part of the brain that is slow, lazy, and easily depleted.

That’s why when you’re tired, stressed, or sick—or when life has dealt you some kind of blow—you simply have less System 2 attention available. It’s easy, then, for the nos to get the upper hand. I remember when I experienced a bout of food poisoning. For several days, the nos were abundant. While I observed the downward trend in my thoughts, I understood what was happening. I was pretty sure my perspective would shift once I got better (which it did), so I didn’t let the nos carry me too far downstream.

It’s easy for one no to outweigh many yesses, so much so that we may not even notice the yesses when they occur. A Facebook friend used to post what she called “The Daily Yes.” It was a good prompt for me because it was my cue to pay attention to what’s juicy and zesty and working in my life—to who and what has said yes to me and who and what I’ve said yes to.

Don’t Let the Nos Foil Your Plans

The negativity bias can really wreak havoc on your attempts to meet your goals, master a challenge, or change an unwanted habit. Your brain is more likely to point out all the things you don’t do—or don’t do as well as you could or should—while ignoring your successes. Along with repetition and perseverance, change requires a cheerleader, not a critic scolding you from the peanut gallery.

If you allow the negativity bias to run unchecked, you’re likely to believe there are more nos than there actually are—and that they mean something. You’re likely to perceive anything that doesn’t work or turn out the way you planned as evidence that something is wrong with you or with your plan instead of using it as feedback to help you adjust your course.

Any time you’re trying to change the status quo is a good time to be intentional about counting your yesses. 

Note: Counting your yesses isn’t the same as positive thinking. Although positive thinking sounds like a good idea, it may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Nor is positive thinking the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.