Imagine a World With Limits

Picture two artists tasked to create works of art.

mending the hurts
“Mending the Hurts” by Rebekah Munson 2011.  Charcoal and Colored Pencils
 

Artist A is given limitations. He is told that it must be a painting on a 1 meter by 1 meter canvas. He is also given time constraints– perhaps 4 weeks. Further he may be given subject constraints— perhaps the one who commissioned it is a wealthy person who wants the painting to express hope in overcoming cancer.

Artist B is given essentially no limitations. There are no guidance as to the size, or even type of art. There are no time constraints— take as long as is needed.  And there are no subject constraints— just make the artwork “awesome!”

Who is likely to create the better piece of art? Most likely it will be Artist A. That is because most of us tend not to do well with no constraints. Most of us lack the discipline to keep working as hard when no one is holding a clock to ensure that we are making progress as agreed upon. Most of us would struggle to be creative when there are no limitations in media. For example, consider the massive creativity involved to apply paint to a limited size 2-dimension surface to show great vistas of outdoor scenery, or abstract imaginings? This requires a great deal of creativity.

Essentially, creativity is the act of overcoming the limitations of media or time. How does one create a moving 2-D image on a screen, with sound) that tells a story of huge battles in outer space? Or record a chariot race in a hippodrome in a setting that had disappeared 2 millennia before the film was produced? How can words on paper or sounds in a radio play draw one into the story so effectively, that years later one cannot recall whether one read it, heard it, or watched it as a movie.

I am presently reading “The Golden Bough” by James G. Frazer. The edition I am reading is almost 800 pages long. It is a LONG book… a compendium of minutiae. On a certain level I appreciate the bits of cultural trivia that are brought together to explain culturally the somewhat obscure ritual of the Arician Grove. While I may appreciate the book, I must also believe that the book would have been stronger as a creative construct if it was about 1/3 the length. There is far too much of — Group G has this practice… and Group H has a pretty similar practice… and so does Groups I, J, and K, although contrasting somewhat with Groups L and M. The book would certainly be easier to appreciate if it was shorter. Perhaps Fraser would have said, or did say, that it needed to be that long to cover the topic fully. I have heard some preachers make the argument that they have to preach for ______ minutes because they have to say what God told them to say. But it is quite likely that they would tell what God told them to say better and more effectively if they recognized that they were limited in time and in the attention span of the recipients. Preachers would most likely be better at preaching if churches put limits on their oratory.

Now suppose, surprise surprise, that Artist B produces a better work than Artist A. Is that possible? Certainly. There is no guarantee. But Artist A is LIKELY to do better because we thrive with REASONABLE limits.  An artist who gets paid minimally for making 2 minute caricatures of people at a carnival may have too many limiters to grow beyond a certain limit. But at the same time, the limitations of that situation may still motivate the artist to hunger (literally and figuratively) for bigger things    Too great of limitations MAY crush the creative spirit, but it can also act as a fire the drives growth.

But suppose that Artist B (without limitations) does do a better job than Artist A (with limitations) at that time.  What if the situation repeats itself? Who will improve the most? Almost certainly Artist A. Pushing against the limitations of media, subject, and time, exercises the creative “muscles.” Artist A is likely to grow as an artist through the discipline provided. It is likely that A will overtake B, all else being equal.

Sometimes there seems to be exceptions to this. The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, designed by Anton Gaudi, seems like an exception– an extravagant piece of art with very little constraints. Almost a century later, the building still is not complete. The Taj Mahal, and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel seem to point to greatness coming from no limitations. But my argument is that creativity grows through constraints. The artist grows through limitations… and in this culture of limitations and discipline, growth occurs. That creative growth and discipline provides the environment for an artist to shine if many of the limitations are removed. (I would still argue that time constraints are still needed… the Sagrada Familia’s century of build is hard to justify as a design project.)

Ministry is creative as well. And in a similar manner we need limitations.

It is good to have time and money limitations. I have seen ministry projects where money and time were not key constraints. The results were wasteful and sloppy. It is also good to have people who provide limitations through guidance and accountability. We simply do better with those things.

But suppose you are one of those unfortunate people in ministry that does not have a lot of accountability or constraints… what can you do? Well, you can create constraints.

  • If asked to speak/preach somewhere, ask for the topic. If they say to speak on whatever you would prefer, seek preferences or find out what are the concerns. It is comfortable, and lazy, to fall back into one’s own favorite topics.
  • If others don’t place limits on you, such as for preaching, set them for yourself. Maybe aim for a 20 minute or 30 minute sermon. While there are some cultures that appreciate longer sermons (especially where oratory is more of a performance art, rather than an act of prophetic ministry), most groups lose attention soon past 30 minutes. Don’t fall in love with your voice so much that you think the longer you speak the more effective you are.
  • If you head an organization, place people over you. Billy Graham established a board over him who guided him and even determined his pay. In the mission field, missionaries sometimes are in a position where no one (at least no one within a few thousand miles) has oversight. If you have none, find some.
  • Develop accountability partners. Today, some pastors serve in churches where there is no one they are accountable to. The same is true of missionaries— especially now that we are in an era where some missionaries are self-sent.
  • Tighten the limitations. If one has 10,000 dollars to accomplish something, establish a budget of $7,000. That not only gives you $3,000 for emergency, but it also pushes you to find creative solutions.
Of course, every time one gives advice, one risks someone (strangely) taking the advice too much to heart. I have known medical missions here in the Philippines that are very wasteful… depending on foreign medicines and foreign professionals, to say nothing are burning money wherever they go. Yet there are other ones that cut TOO many corners. They use expired medicines or doctors samples, and use underqualified medical professionals. Creativity is driven by oversight that sets limitations, but also maintains quality control.

I hope you will look for opportunities to be limited in your ministry!

   

Some More Thinking Inside the Box. Part 1

I have talked about this before… but it seems to be worthy of more thoughts. Since I have started intentionally listening for the phrase “thinking outside of the box” or the instruction “Think outside the box”,

1. The issue isn’t thinking outside of the box but understanding the difference between real constraints and areas of freedom.

Consider the classic 9 point grid. I have used this before. (Ptr. Bart Dela Cruz used this illustration for an article he wrote for our group. I will use the same basic idea but look at it from a slightly different angle.)

Matrix 1What is the fewest number of lines to hit all of the points?  Here are four possible answers:

Matrix 2Matrix 3Matrix 4Matrix 5So four possible answers to the question are 3, 4, 5, and 1. Which is correct?

It depends on two things: DEFINITIONS and CONSTRAINTS.

DEFINITIONS:  What is a line. The last figure shows a single line. Some would argue that it is not a single line because it is curved. They might argue that a line is straight. They learned that in math class. Of course, there may be more than one definition. An artist is likely to question of limit lines to straight ones. Besides, even if one used a mathematical (and Euclidean) understanding of lines, other problems come up. In math, a line goes in both directions forever and ever and ever. That may not seem to be an issue, but when one gets to constraints… this is important. Line segments have endpoints, lines do not. One can also ask how thick is the line. In math, lines have no thickness… but in the real world they do. If one allows a thick enough line, the entire grid can be covered by one tiny part of a straight line. But we won’t worry about that (or non-Euclidean space and other novelties).

CONSTRAINTS. If one uses straightness as a limiting part of the definition, there is still the question whether the correct answer is 3, 4, or 5. One constraint would be boundary constraints. Is one allowed only to use the space with in the grid, or can one use all space. Another constraint is action constraints. For example, can one lift one’s pen during the action or no? One could also add equipment constraints, such as whether one can use a special pen with two or more marking components or a pen that can turn off and on marking while never leaving the surface of the paper. Once again, won’t concern myself with that here.

mATRIX 6Consider the matrix above. Suppose the leftmost column describes definitions of lines and the top two rows describe combinations of constraints, then the blue and red text describes the possible answers to the question of the least number of lines to hit every point on the grid. The point is not to “think outside of the box” but to understand what genuine limitations one has and what limitations one does not have.

A little game we do in Community Development training. It is tower-building. We give two teams some materials (like string, tape, and straws). and tell them to each build the tallest tower. Sometimes we tell them that they are limited to the materials we give them (external assets). But sometimes we tell them nothing on that issue. Therefore, they are not constrained from using other stuff they can find, like desks, chairs, and the like. The point there is that in one case one is limited by a real constraint (external assets of string, tape, and straws) and sometimes one has no such real constraint. In the latter case, the real constraint is missing and so one has the opportunity to discover which team (or both) constrained by their own self-made limitations. Of course, one could take it further. One team could tape one end of the string to the ceiling of the room and let it dangle to the ground where it is again taped off and call that a tower. In such a case, the definition of what constitutes a tower (free-standing, self-supporting, or not) needs to be addressed.

In other words… the key point is to be able to separate genuine limitations (walls) one must deal with, and limitations that we may place on ourselves but are not inherent to the problem. One must recognize the difference between the real box and the box that we mistakenly create for ourselves.

The next two posts will deal with a couple of other issues regarding the box (limitations). The second post is that limitations help us grow. The third, related somewhat to the second, is that limitations inspire creativity.

Struggling Creatively

My ancestors are Swedish. My great-grandparents came to the US in the 1880s. Not too much of Swedish traditions were passed on to me. One thing that was passed down to us was Swedish food. I knew about limpa, ingladt sil, potatiskorv, lingenberry, sylta, rotmos, gloog, rice pudding, lutfisk, among other things.

One time, my aunt and uncle went to Sweden to visit some cousins who live there. They were treated well and there was much good food to eat. My aunt and uncle noted the general absence of what they considered to be Swedish food. They were told that the food they were being served in Sweden was, indeed, Swedish food. When informed of what we in the US considered to be Swedish food, they responded… “Oh… that’s peasant food.”

If I had taken time to think about it, I should have guessed that. My ancestors were peasants. My great-grandparents were impoverished farmers. They left Sweden because they sought economic opportunities in America. Their struggles forced them to come up with creative solutions. If they were wealthy, they would not have had reason to come to the US.

Poverty was the motivation of my great-grandparents to change their circumstances. Struggles in life are not necessarily bad. We need them, sometimes, to motivate us to make good decisions. When things are going well, we are not willing to take risks. Yet, risks are needed at times.

Some struggles are good… they force us to open our minds to what God may have for us. It is hard to be open to change when the place we are presently at is comfortable. Comfort and Convenience can stifle Creativity.

People like to say the well-worn quote that “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” However, the so-called “necessity” is often simply seeking comfort and convenience. To me the challenge is how to be creative and inventive without truly achieving comfort and convenience.