Can constraints give you freedom?

Q: Can constraints give you freedom?

A: Yes.

A constraint is a limitation on what you can do. Limitations force you to focus on what’s left. When my wisdom teeth were removed, I was forced to eat clam chowder, egg drop soup, and blueberry and spinach smoothies for two weeks. By the end of the diet, I had fallen in love. Egg drop soup is delicious. Clam chowder is perfect for cold days. I would not have realized this if my diet hadn’t been constrained.

Harper Lee, the author of ‘To Kill To A Mockingbird’ was born in a small town in Alabama and said, “We did not have the pleasure of the theater, of the dance or motion pictures when they came along. We simply entertained each other by talking.” She was entertained by her father, a lawyer, who gave speeches in the court room. She was constrained to conversations and speeches and this allowed her to develop a tremendous talent for writing.

The more constraints you have, the more you explore the few resources you are left with.

Rap music came from Brooklyn in the late 1970s when Brooklyn’s economy was crashing and music programs were disappearing from schools and taking guitars and saxophones with them. Musical children were forced to use their desks as percussion and voices, full of bravado, as microphones. Beat boxing and rapping came from people who squeezed possibilities out of empty bank accounts. Engaging in art was survival, as it was for slaves singing in the field to keep from boredom and black comedians of the 1960s like Richard Pyror who laughed about racial tension to keep from crying.

This is the same idea as a mother becoming close with her kids after a hurricane has stolen electricity and forced the family into the dark, or a medical emergency has threatened a mother’s expectation of living to 80. She must share intimate family history with her children while she has the chance.

From mothers to motherlands, we notice that Britain and France and Germany explored the world as European colonialists because they had big populations on small land with small natural resources. In contrast, India never explored the world because they had all the land they needed.

In the book, the “History of Science in Society,” authors Andrew Ede and Lesley B. Cormack said that ancient Greece was home to a scientific revelation. The Greeks believed that they could understand how the world worked by studying it. This was different from other ancient civilizations who believed the world was run by gods and understanding how it ran was out of mankind’s reach. Why the intellectual revelation? Why did Greece adopt such a productive philosophy? Because they were forced to. They ancient civilizations had rivers: the Egyptians enjoyed the riches of the Nile and the Mesopotamians swam in the Tigris and Euphrates and the peaceful Indus people sailed on the Indus river. They had the natural resources they needed: food, geographical protection, and waterways for transportation. Greece was less wealthy. They had to invent ships that could navigate seas, grow crops without the aid of flooding, and protect themselves from not only enemies but other city-states. Athens couldn’t claim that their gods made crops grow and then have Sparta come to market with more crops and boast abut their farming methods. City-states were compelled to grow the frontier of knowledge. They were competitive in math, athletics, and medicine. There was less room for superstition. Lack of land and food forced Greeks to invent columns, stadiums, The Iliad and The Odyssey, logic, and the Olympics.

May I give more examples? Once one appears, two or three more leap into view. Each tells a story of a constraints that, at first, could seem like a handicap, but ultimately become a source of new wisdom. Never before had someone chosen to focus so intensely. The person forced to do so becomes a pioneer.

You, as an artist, can take these stories and find equivalents in your life. You can recognize when you are being constrained and, instead of feeling limited, use the opportunity to focus on what you are left with and know that you’ll come out with an exceptional talent.

Ready? New example: I visited Montreal and was amazed at how many book stores they had. I ran into book stores on the way to other book stores. Could this have to do with their cold weather? People are kept indoors and forced to focus on indoor pursuits like reading? I don’t have the answer but a data scientists somewhere does…

Isaac Newton was forced indoors when the Bubonic plague came to London and shut down Cambridge University. For two years, Isaac stayed inside and created calculus, worked out the theories of gravitation, and contributed to optics. He discovered that white light is composed of all colors of light put together. Historians have called this Isaac’s “annus mirabilies” which means “miraculous years.” In his notebook, Isaac wrote, “…all this was in the two plague years of 1665 and 1666, for in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention, and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since.”

Similar to Isaac is the story of Anne Frank. She was a 13-year-old girl forced to live with her family in secret rooms above an office building when Nazi armies invaded Austria during World War II and searched for Jewish people to arrest and take to concentration camps. Anne stayed in hiding for two years and, in that time, developed incredible talents for writing and critical thinking. Her only available activities were reading, conversation, listening to the radio, and writing. She wrote fairy tales to amuse her family. She debated her parents and sister about the war’s outcome. She huddled near the radio to listen to around-the-clock pundits give updates on military advancements and politicians like Winston Churchill give speeches to motivate the hopes of the citizens. Anne’s growth appears in the pages of her diary, a book which can be purchased today and contains thoughtful dissections of her parent’s often hypocritical behaviors, witty theories on love and puberty, and essays on happiness. Had she lived, she would have been a prolific author.

Another example comes from World War II. Germany made advances in rocket technology and famously developed the Huckel-Winkler 1, the world’s first liquid fuel rocket. Germany also invented the V-2, which was the world’s first long-range rocket and the first man-made object to travel into space. This advancement was possible because Germany was outlawed from doing anything else. After Germany was held responsible for World War I, the victorious countries forced Germany to sign the Treaty Of Versailles which said, “The manufacture and the importation into Germany of armored cars, tanks and all similar constructions suitable for use in war are prohibited.” Germany was prohibited from having submarines and an air force. Germany famously introduced chemistry into warfare. During World War 1, their scientists invented many forms of poison gas. This was also banned. Germany was left to quietly create futuristic war tools which were not covered in the Treaty — namely, rockets.

Constraints are applauded in the popular phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention” or as my uncle likes to say, “Broke-ass is the mother of invention.”

I broke my finger and could not type. I was forced to learn how to dictate, which meant speaking out loud into software that would type what I said. After a period of beginner’s clumsiness, I gained a skill. Now, I can take a walk and dictate into my phone. I can dictate while looking out the window. I have access to new ways of coming up with ideas that being tied to a keyboard did not offer. Constraints gave me freedom.