Creative Freedom vs. Creative Restraints
Which do truly creative individuals prefer?
Contrary to popular belief, complete and total creative freedom actually does more damage than good in our collective desire to do meaningful work. If you want to produce truly creative things, you need limitations, either self-imposed or agreed upon with your team or your clients.
It might seem counterintuitive at first, but the goal is always to establish a box which limits you. Once inside that box, however, you need freedom to operate.
But the box is a much more effective place in which to create than an open field. That field leads to some really bad creative habits forming: You don’t self-edit against a set of guidelines or expectations, so every idea and, worst of all, every draft is dubbed a good one. You don’t have a deadline, so you aren’t as disciplined as you should be, which hurts your work’s quality and creative differentiation, not to mention the volume of work you can produce overall. You don’t know where you’re running towards, so your work suffers. It’s not as effective in solving a problem or triggering the right thoughts or emotions in the audience.
In the end, you wind up zig-zagging everywhere in that field, at first because you’re drunk on your own excitement of being so creatively free, but after awhile, it’s because you’re so confused and panicked that you can’t pick a path.
Eventually, you stop running entirely and sink to the ground, paralyzed.
Give me the box any day.
But again, once I’m in there, get out of my way. It’s within those four walls that I need my space. It starts with agreeing on that box with my team — the goals, the mission, the resources, the timeline, the team, and so on — but after that, let me go.
I know it sounds insane that I’d say this, but it’s something I firmly believe:
Creative freedom is the enemy of being truly creative.
Creative freedom is the best friend of people who simply create “stuff.” They’re not accountable to anything. They’re able to hide behind whatever excuse or point of contention they want.
That brings me to my next point: The interplay between true creative freedom and putting yourself in a box. You need moments of acting like a goofball in a Play-Doh factory and moments of being a critically acclaimed chef in a kitchen with a set number of ingredients. You’ll use different muscles, encounter different challenges, but ultimately improve either way. (Note: Side projects are the best place to act like that goofball with Play-Doh, but that’s a post — or 12 — for another day.)
Examine the most creative among us, and you’ll see that we actually seek out the box on our own. We may start with total freedom, maybe working on that side project for no reason, for instance. But even then, we build up a box to play in and try it out for awhile. Maybe we keep it, or maybe we break it down. At work, we almost always ask for it, because that’s not a side project. The goal isn’t simply to learn, it’s to get results. So we make sure we get the information we need about something — this helps erect the box. Then we practically leap inside that box. We find the outer walls immediately, sure, and we want everyone to stay out of our way inside it, absolutely. But we’re comfortable in there. We can do real damage in there. We’re unstoppable in there.
But put us in that open field? Paralysis.
Creative restraints help motivate us and help alert us to failure and success. Maybe the restraint is delivered by articulating a mission, which becomes our box (e.g. “Help students learn to write better college essays”). Maybe it’s more straightforward, like a due date. Or maybe it’s a process — write at 10am, edit at 2pm, publish tomorrow, repeat twice a week.
Whatever the case, if you want to be truly creative, you have to find your box. When you hear creatives you know or even admire complain that their jobs don’t allow for enough creative freedom, just know that what they’re really frustrated about is a box they disagree with, or a box they agreed on originally but has since become too crowded by meddlesome colleagues.
But sheer creative freedom is the biggest myth behind truly creative people.
As creative people, we know that being successful and producing a ton of high quality work means finding that box. And if it’s not given to us or agreed up with others, we’ll just create our own. To teammates of craft-driven creators, know that we actually do want limitations. We want guardrails and goalposts. We might rebel against the box you chose for us. We might freak out if you crowd us when we’re in it. We might even want to torch the one we set up and try to build another one. But we do want and benefit from a lack of total freedom.
Because in the end, the very best among us all understand the same truth about doing meaningful work:
Creative freedom is far less empowering than creative restraint.
What’s This Mysterious Image Below?
I’m developing a podcast and content brand focused on helping, celebrating, and connecting craft-driven content creators in business. My two-week production calendar made me realize that, without this box, I’d be completely lost.
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PPS: One of the walls of the box I’m currently in? I have to edit this piece, but only for grammar and spelling. I want to publish before 3PM Friday, and I’m barely there! #BoxesFTW