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Embracing the Shake: Why Limitations Drive Creativity

JWT North America CEO David Eastman returns from TED with stories of creativity that blossoms in spite (or because) of limitations.

I work in advertising.

For those of you still reading, I think I know a little about the conditions needed for creativity to flourish (and also those needed for it not to).

Composer Leonard Bernstein once said that in order to achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time. And so it was at TED last week that this quote, or more specifically, the sense of limitation being a creative driver, became for me a meta-theme of the conference.

Instead of limitations stifling your creativity, holding you back and, in a lot of cases, forcing you to quit whatever your creative endeavor might be, this week proved that only by embracing them can you fully liberate the creative soul within you. In fact, the more constrained the individual, the more liberated and creative they can become.

Take Richard Turere, a 13-year-old Maasai who, working with only components harvested from junkyards, invented Lion Lights, an electrified fence that uses flashing LED lights to harmlessly scare lions away from his father’s cattle.

Or Ron Finley, a designer turned urban food farmer from South Central Los Angeles, which he describes as "home of the drive-through and the drive-by," and a place where one in two kids develop a curable disease like diabetes. Ron had a vision for a healthy accessible "food forest" and planted a vegetable garden in a strip of dirt in front of his own house. The city tried to shut it down but Ron fought back, helped people plant more vegetable gardens, and now heads a movement that provides a shareable urban garden economy among his neighbors.

There were myriad other examples, but the two standout personal stories of embracing limitations involved overcoming a physical and mental challenge.  

Phil Hansen is a multimedia artist who developed a tremor that was diagnosed as permanent nerve damage due to the extreme form of pointillism he used during art school. He dropped out and thought his career was over until a neurologist suggested he "embrace the shake."

Once he learned to look at his limitation as an enabler, he invented completely original approaches to making art. Have a look at his work here.

In Phil’s own words: "We need to first become limited to become limitless." Not only did he embrace his limitations, he used them as a source of creativity.

Perhaps the most remarkable example and the talk that earned one of the longest "standing O’s" (as TED’s Chris Anderson likes to call them) was by Eleanor Longden. Without any slides, she simply stood and told her story of the voices in her head, a story of a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia at 17, and of being drugged, sectioned, and forcibly confined to a psychiatric ward. She spoke of being bullied, feeling suicidal, and reaching a place where she felt totally destroyed, with the voices in her head becoming more and more demonic.

However, Eleanor isn’t mentally ill—and neither are many people who hear voices in their heads. When she finally met a psychiatrist who was willing to gradually take her off her medication (at Eleanor’s request), she and her doctors came to realize that the voices were a creative and ingenious survival strategy, and not meant as something to be endured but as a meaningful experience to be explored. By embracing what had been limiting her and choosing to see the voices not as a symptom of mental illness but as a way of finding out about herself, she slowly recovered. Eleanor is now studying for her PhD and lectures about recovery-oriented approaches. Does she still hear voices? Yes. In fact, she told us that during her talk the voice was saying "don’t forget this bit" or "mention that bit now."

So, apart from the triumph-of-the-spirit bravery that Phil and Eleanor displayed, and the Campbellesque hero’s journey of going through intense personal battles to ultimately overcome what was holding them back, here were two things that struck me: First, it’s only by letting go of both your limitations and the outcome that you give yourself the opportunity to tap into that place of ultimate creativity, a place of flow, the zone, whatever you want to call it. Or maybe we should simply say what Phil Hansen’s neurologist said: "Just embrace the shake."

Second, all four of the examples above were told as personal stories, not presentations. It was the storytelling element that drew the audience in. And part of the genius of TED is that 18 minutes fosters good storytelling. Evidently, it all comes back to Leonard Bernstein.

David Eastman is CEO, JWT North America.

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