Featured Stories, Imagine That

Thinking inside the box

The surprising benefits of restrictions on creativity

Laura Mann

The sonnet is an interesting phenomenon in the world of poetry. Shakespeare is probably the most famous sonnet writer, having offered more than 150, but the format has been around, in one form or another, since the 13th century.

In order to write a sonnet, the poet must follow an almost unbelievably restrictive set of rules: The rhyme must be in a certain format; there are a certain number of lines; the syllables stressed in each word must follow a particular pattern. These rules have changed over the years, and vary according to the language the poem is written in (most commonly English, Urdu, and Italian); however, all sonnet writers go into their projects knowing that they are working in one of the most difficult literary formats ever conceived.

The fact that some of Shakespeare’s most wildly creative works were created within such strict boundaries is counterintuitive to the notion that high-level creatives’ best ideas come from “outside the box.” However, poets in Shakespeare’s time looked at their art very differently than we do in the modern world. By the early 20th century, the sonnet was long thought to be outdated, its rules too burdensome to the abstract thinker.

In the 1920s, when modern art was breaking boundaries and changing the cultural landscape of the Western world, renowned poets Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay brought the sonnet back into vogue. Millay, a hard-partying American flapper, was known for flaunting the rules; yet, within the severe sonnet format, we find her at her best: heartbreaking, emotional, turbulent, and raw.

The freedom of limits

Could it be that the constraints of the sonnet format helped to draw out new levels of creativity in these poets? What does this say about the creative process, and the assumptions we make about how our imaginations work?

In order to push ourselves creatively, we must have something to push against.

“[A] blank slate can overwhelm us with its possibilities,” cognitive psychologist and Rider University professor Dr. Catrinel Haught explained to WAMC Northeast Public Radio in July of 2013. “My theory places constraints at the heart of the creative process. It predicts that the greater the number of constraints, within reason, the more creative people are likely to be.”

In one experiment, Haught asked participants to come up with a rhyming message for someone’s birthday or anniversary. The control group was given that prompt alone; another group was given additional constraints, e.g. a requirement to start the message with a certain letter, or build the message around a particular word. Haught found that the constrained group produced more creative, witty messages than the control group.

Author and innovation expert Adam Richardson is a hobby photographer. In a blog post for Harvard Business Review titled “Boosting Creativity through Constraints,” Richardson explains that he intentionally purchased a camera that doesn’t zoom. “I’m … forced to physically engage with my surroundings,” writes Richardson. “I can’t stand in one spot and lazily twist the zoom in and out. I’ve got to move myself around, and this opens up points of view I would have missed if I’d stuck to my initial position.” Richardson has found that, by intentionally omitting the convenience provided by a zoom lens, his work gains a new perspective, giving him an edge over the photographer who relies too much on the zoom.

The next time you or your child struggles with a problem that needs a creative solution, try putting some limitations on the problem. In order to push ourselves creatively, we must have something to push against. It’s what makes playing with boxes so compelling for our kids.

There are limitations and limitless possibilities. Sometimes, the best answers have been hiding inside the box all along.

Imagine that!

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