Many of us don’t like constraints or limitations. We want our freedom. We want plenty of choices. But lurking within the constraints we face are also great opportunities. Although challenging at times, constraints can also nurture resourcefulness, spark creativity, and clarify what’s essential.
The writing of Green Eggs and Ham is a classic example of working within constraints. The book came about because of a bet between Theodor Geisel (Dr. Suess) and his publisher. The publisher bet Geisel that he could not write a complete book using only 50 unique words. Geisel had used 236 words in The Cat in the Hat. Whittling a book’s vocabulary down to 50 words was going to be a challenge. But Geisel accepted the constraint, and ultimately found a way to achieve his goal. He was forced to be focused and creative. And the result turned out to be one of the best selling children’s books to date.1
Constraints can push you to do better than you otherwise would. They help you clarify what’s important. In college, one professor would always give us maximum word counts for our assignments. There was limited space to use, and we would be graded on how well we used it. Unlike other classes that had minimum words counts, there was no temptation to use filler to expand the size of the paper. We had to figure out what we were trying to say, and then say it succinctly. We had a clear constraint to work against, and the result was better writing.
Whether forced upon us by the situation or self-imposed, constraints can be beneficial. They can inspire creativity, force us to be more resourceful, help us do better, more focused work. Having more options may sound nice. But sometimes we’d benefit more from a few constraints.