May 2, 2021

Limitations are Liberating

This is the fourteenth in a series of short essays I wrote as part of the Ship 30 for 30 program. You can read all thirty essays here.

There’s a book by Jocko Willink, an ex-Navy Seal, called Discipline Equals Freedom. That statement fascinates me. On the surface, it seems like a contradiction, but it contains a fundamental truth.

We tend to associate freedom with a boundless state of possibility. But a lack of limitations can be oppressive.

Take shared living as an example. Anyone who has lived in shared accommodation knows the importance of clear boundaries. Without them, nobody knows the expected norms, so people’s behaviour impacts one another in unforeseen ways. Someone plays music too loud, someone never washes up, etc. This creates an oppressive home environment that can only be solved by agreeing a shared set of rules, or limitations, on what is acceptable.

In the creative arts—a field that exemplifies limitless possibilities—limitations are what allow each art form to thrive. If the painter could paint anything, any size, any medium, the possibilities would be paralysingly endless. But, by choosing to specialise in, say, portraiture, oil paints and canvases of a certain size, they can flourish. Creativity comes from constraints.

Music is a notable example, with its system of keys and scales. Despite there only being twelve notes, music is a world of infinite creative possibility. Even the most outlandish musicians know it’s the notes you don’t play that make a song work.

My wife is a dance teacher. Dance has its own array of forms, each with limitations and rules that enable people to be as creative as their imagination allows without the form falling apart. Working with a limited set of movements unlocks creative expression in a way the absence of limitation never could.

When you need to think outside the box, don’t try to remove constraints. Instead, impose some limitations and see how you can find creative solutions in response.