Boundaries & Creativity

A writer with a blank page can dream up the greatest story ever told; or he can write an exhilarating history of America’s advancement into the west; or he can leave the pages blank with words and simply fill them with pencil sketches.

The options are limitless. And this leads the writer to writer’s block. He has so many directions to choose from that he never gets started.

Creative thinking requires boundaries. A writer who sits down and leaves his options open will never put a single word on the page. But a writer who knows that he wants to write a detective novel set in the 1950s will have a much easier time getting started.

By choosing a detective novel as the story, he is cutting off the possibility of writing a western, or a science fiction, or a biography of some famous star. It’s counter-intuitive to think that, by limiting your options so severely, you can actually begin to create. But it’s true.

Costco realized this with consumer spending. When faced with dozens of options for the same product, people are less likely to purchase any one of them, even though they will theoretically be able to choose the best!

Check your local Costco. They never have more than 2 brands per product. That’s because customers are much more likely to buy a product with less options. Moreover, they will be happier, since they only had to choose the best of 2. Who can choose the best brand of ketchup out of a dozen? I can’t!

In magic, I create new routines by first setting boundaries. I determine which type of show I want to add something new to: my strolling show, where I walk around from person to person in a party; or my stand-up show, which is performed on a stage with the audience at a distance.

I tell myself that I want a routine that will take up little to no room, but will be visible to x number of people (3, 10, 300, etc.). This greatly limits the options that I have. After that, I then look at what props would look natural in my show and what would look out of place.

All of this is to set boundaries, and it pays off very well. With a clear picture of the boundaries — of what I want and don’t want — the process of creative thinking is much more smooth, and the ideas seem to manifest.

Creative thinking requires boundaries. A painter can have a blank canvas, but the canvas has to have edges. In business, this is just as true. Look at your current project, identify the boundaries, and work within them. You’ll be surprised at how many ideas present themselves.

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