Saturday, April 05, 2014

Don’t run from your limitations, leverage them

I met a travel photographer who had an interesting philosophy.

He said natural lighting was the only way he worked.

Not only because of the image quality, which was often stronger than staged lighting, but mainly because he didn’t want to schlep all his heavy equipment through foreign countries for weeks at a time. Imagine marching through a rainforest carrying flashes, umbrellas, light boxes, reflectors, backdrops, accessories, optical slaves, power supplies and metal stands.

What a nightmare.

Interestingly, because of his decision to only use natural lighting, he never committed to one particular photographic aesthetic. He never stylized himself into a corner. Which meant he was able to experiment with a variety of different approaches. And as a result, that freed him to evolve his visual voice as he saw fit, solidifying his reputation as an interesting, versatile and unique photographer.

Adrienne didn’t run from his limitations, he leveraged them.

And I remember thinking to myself, I wonder if this happens in other fields?

You bet.

There’s the musician, whose early records were limited to three minutes on a side. That put pressure on him to the keep the pieces short, but helped him become a master at creating short, concise musical statements that were close to perfect.

There’s the commercial artist, whose day job gave him a steady income that allowed him to delve into each chosen project without having to worry about a deadline or a panic to sell. That allowed his pieces to become complete on their own schedule.

There’s the photographer, whose antique photograph paper had a chemistry that was overly sensitive to ultraviolet light. This allows his white and featureless skies to become strong graphic elements in his pictures that echoed the shape of the land.

There’s the painter, whose vision dimmed due to macular degeneration. But since he couldn’t see the details of the canvas anyway, his conditioned enhanced his impressionistic painting style.

There’s the standup comedian, whose incurable perfectionism forced him to develop jokes glacially. But since he waited sometimes years for punchlines to full ripen, that allowed for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise.

There’s the homebuilder, whose client had a severe slope in her land, which inspired him to add terraces, stonework, waterfalls, and extensive landscaping. As a result, he created an unexpected feeling of calm and contentment for the residents.

There’s the choreographer, whose principal dancer was struck by a motor scooter and couldn’t perform the traditionally powerful moves. But he exploited her stillness to powerfully evoke the feeling of loss and separation between her and the other dancer.

There’s the rock band, whose nominal music skill and crappy equipment forced them create unconventional performances with props, staging, masks and costumes. These elements later became a crucial component to their mysterious brand persona.

Each of these artists leveraged their limitations.

How are you leveraging yours?

I remember when I first transitioned from being a full time artist to being a full time employee. Initially, I was concerned. Because now that I had a new day job, I also had a serious time limitation. And I wondered how that might affect my output.

But because my creative work had became a supplementary source of income, I began making art independent of my need to make money and keep the lights on. That freed my ideas from the burden of having to support myself. And I found that creativity wasn’t as claustrophobic anymore, now that I wasn’t worrying about money as much. Ultimately, by removing the acute business pressure that previously hung over my head, I experienced a newfound artistic sovereignty that allowed me to experiment with new mediums and genres and ideas.

I leveraged my limitations.

It’s a form of optimism, really.

Which doesn’t increase your success, but what it does increase is your field of vision, and that allows you to better notice the opportunities that lead to success.

I’m reminded of this fascinating interview I heard between a physician and a cancer survivor. Recounting his diagnosis experience, the patient said:

“If you have a bad attitude about your disease, odds are, you won’t get better­­, because you won’t do the necessary research on the resources that will make you better. You’ll never find the solution that leads to the solution. That’s the physical and procedural manifestation of a bad attitude. Mindset may not affect the outcome, but it does affect the experience.”

In this way, leveraging your limitations becomes part of your expanded field of vision. It’s not about mind over matter, it’s about using your mind to allow more things to matter, so you can expose yourself to the best solution. 

Think of it as a filter.

In the production management world, factories and organizations call this the theory of constraints, in which they identify the limitation, decide how to exploit it, and then restructure everything in the system around it.

Which sound like dry, dense corporate speak––and it is––but it’s also a useful filter for approaching your creative work. The artist’s journey, after all, is a journey of revealing to yourself what you love, who you are and who you aren’t. And so, the goal of the filter is to embrace the entirety of your personality, not just your strengths. To creatively channel your liabilities, play the ball where it lies and make the most of what you’ve got.

Don’t run from your limitations, leverage them.

Constraints are catapults.