Turning a Minus Into a Plus … Constraints are Catalysts for Innovation

Creativity Thrives Best When Constrained

“Art consists in limitation,” as the English writer G. K. Chesterton remarked. Constraints are the sine qua non of creativity.

One of the great ironies of creative thinking is that it seems to benefit from constraints. At first blush, inventive thinking may seem to require a great degree of freedom and a lack of restrictions, but the reality of the creative process is that it is frequently entwined with many challenging constraints and intractable requirements. In the right light, demanding constraints can truly be blessings in disguise as the French poet Paul Valery observed, “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.”

Constraints can shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Constraints stimulate creativity because they not only invigorate inventive thinking but also reduce the complexity of the problem at hand. That is to say, constraints can make a problem more controllable, and possibly even more appealing.

Constraints and Challenge Can Actually Be Assets to the Creative Process

When you explore inventions that are creative, you’ll discover that the creators often exploited some core constraints that had characterized their domain in the past. Here are six examples of creativity that exploited a constraint to great advantage.

  • British Airways 'Go for it America' marketing campaign and Virgin Atlantic's Response In 1986, British Airways ran a “Go for it, America!” marketing campaign to give away 5,200 free seats—all seats on its scheduled flights between USA and UK on June 10, 1986. In response, the upstart Virgin Atlantic ran its own newspaper advertisements that declared, “It has always been Virgin’s policy to encourage you to fly to London for as little as possible. So on June 10 we encourage you to fly British Airways.” And in smaller type, the ad read, “As for the rest of the year, we look forward to seeing you aboard Virgin Atlantic. For the best service possible. At the lowest possible fare.” The British Airways giveaway generated a lot of publicity, but most of the news coverage also mentioned Virgin’s unexpected, witty response.
  • In October 1984, during the second presidential debate with challenger Walter Mondale, Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun questioned President Ronald Reagan about his age: “You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?” Reagan famously replied, “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Tyrwhitt responded, “Mr. President, I’d like to head for the fence and try to catch that one before it goes over.” Mondale lost and Reagan got elected for his second term as President. [See YouTube clip of this debate.]
  • An determined young woman I knew was embarking on a career as a new architect. She had set her sights on a job with a prominent architectural firm, but her professors and career councilors urged her to gain experience at a smaller employer first, as no prestigious firm would take on an inexperienced, new graduate. Undeterred, the young woman applied to the firm she had set her sights for. When asked about her experience, she declared slickly, “I have no experience at all. You see, I want to learn this business at a top quality firm. Employ me and mentor me to suit your design practices. This way, I’ll not have to unlearn any of the second-rate skills I’d have learned in another place.” She got the job.
  • When YouTube launched in 2005, many of its upstart competitors examined each uploaded video for copyright infringement. However, unlike its competitors, YouTube calculatedly let users upload any content and waited for copyright owners to complain before taking down noncompliant videos. By choosing to put their business model at risk, YouTube rapidly grew in content and viewers. Its early rivals faded out, and YouTube got acquired by Google and went on to became the world’s leading video-sharing platform.
  • The Soup, 1902 by Pablo Picasso (from his Blue Period) Legend has it that one day, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) had only blue paint to work with. When he started toying with the effects of painting with one color, he discovered the potential to produce interesting paintings that conveyed a sense of melancholy. Picasso had just relocated to Paris and was deeply affected by a close friend and fellow artist’s suicide. Art historians believe this event marked the onset of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–1904,) during which he produced many stoic and sentimental paintings in mostly monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green. In what would become the hallmark of this greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso leveraged an apparent constraint into an unintended creative outcome.
  • When American sculptor Janet Echelman‘s art supplies never arrived to South India on a Fulbright scholarship trip, Echelman altered her plans and started working with bronze casts inspired by the local materials and culture of Mahabalipuram, fishing village famous for sculpture. However, she soon found the material too heavy and expensive for her Fulbright budget. While examining fishermen bundling their nets one evening, Echelman began speculating if nets could be a new approach to sculpture. However, the delicate surfaces of the fishnets revealed every ripple of wind. Echelman hoisted the fishnets onto poles and created sturdy volumetric forms without heavy, solid materials. Echelman’s building-sized constructed net art structures are now featured in many cities around the world. [See Janet Echelman’s TED talk.]

In each situation, the inventor reframed elements of his/her world that he/she couldn’t control.

When faced with an element of the situation that they cannot ignore or overcome, instead of tackling those problems head-on, creative folks tend to leverage their constraints in a creative way and reframe them into an exceptionally powerful problem-solving technique.

Idea for Impact: Constraints often stimulate creativity rather than suppress it.

The heart of many a problem lies in what seems to be a single, intractable element. When that’s the case, instead of asking, “how can I minimize this liability?” explore “how can I make the most of it?”

Fight Ignorance, Not Each Other

Demonization in the Era of Hyper-polarization and Hyper-politicization

We live in a era of hyper-polarization and hyper-politicization. Studies suggest that we Americans have mostly devolved to two political groups that fervently believe that all wisdom resides in their particular standpoints and therefore care less and less to empathize with the other side.

People loathe the “other” ideological group with such visceral obsession that their hate pollutes their minds. Thanks partly to social media, self-organized tribes are isolating themselves into geographic, religious, ideological, educational, ethnic, and media bubbles of like-minded crusaders.

As I wrote previously, studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks can make people even more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals. They demonize anyone who disagrees with them. They neither account for the case against their positions, nor find middle ground.

In the wake of the 2011 Tucson shooting (where perpetrator Jared Loughner shot and killed six individuals, and injured 14 others at a political gathering,) meditation teacher James Baraz of wrote a Huffington Post essay underscoring the ignorance that brings about the aforesaid demonization:

The real villain is in this story is not Jared Loughner. It’s not the media. And it’s not the gun rights advocates. The real villain is ignorance. Because of ignorance, people project their fear and turn those who are different into enemies—both in their minds and in actuality. Once you demonize the “other” they become less than human and you can inflict pain on them without guilt or shame.

Choose Your Role Models Carefully

Chose Your Role Models Carefully Heroes and role models are very useful—they embody a higher plateau of cognitive and emotional truth, knowledge, and accomplishment that you can aspire to.

But the modern world has a dangerous problem with hero-worship: pop artists, rappers, film stars, sportspersons, capitalists, and so on command attention and affection as never before. This 2013 Financial Times article noted, “Way back in 2008, the three most admired personalities in sport were probably Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius. They were portrayed not just as great athletes but as great men, role models….” And all these three popular heroes fell from grace.

While admiring and drawing wisdom, meaning, and inspiration from heroes can be constructive, you must take “hero narratives” with a grain of salt. The Buddha warned us not to trust anybody or anything just because it seems logical or it resonates with our feelings. He advised that we test our hypotheses by the results they yield when put into practice and shield our minds against the risk of biases or other limitations of our ability to discern from our experiences wisely. According to the Kalama Sutta, an aphorism of the historical Buddha that has been preserved orally by his followers (translated from the Pali by the eminent American Buddhist monk and prolific author Thanissaro Bhikkhu,)

Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’—then you should enter & remain in them.

Idea for Impact: Don’t blindly place much faith in today’s experts and celebrities. Realize the truth yourself.

How People Defend Themselves in a Crisis

How People Defend Themselves in a Crisis The desire to protect and enhance one’s self-image is among the strongest motives of human behavior. No wonder scientific literature is laden with discussions on the ways in which people invoke self-deception in the interest of maintaining a favorable sense of their selves.

People have a propensity to avoid conscious awareness of fear-triggering worries, conflicts, and uncertainties. They engage in thought patterns that distort the external realities as a way of coping with distress.

Psychologists use the term “ego defense mechanisms” to describe the pattern of thought and behavior that arises in response to the perception of psychical danger.

Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) wrote in The Ego and the Id (1923,) “We have come upon something in the ego itself which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed—that is, which produces powerful effects without itself being conscious and which requires special work before it can be made conscious.” Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud (1895–1982,) and other psychologists identified twelve primary defense mechanisms:

  1. Denial: explicitly refusing to acknowledge the threatening reality even when presented with indisputable data (e.g. someone with a terminal illness rejecting the imminence of his death.) Denial may give the respondent some time to evaluate the meaning and seriousness of the threatening reality before reacting to it.
  2. Disavowal: acknowledging the threatening reality but downplaying its significance
  3. Suppression: intentionally engaging distractions to eliminate from consciousness any thoughts of the threatening reality
  4. Fixation: committing inflexibly to one specific mind-set or course of action
  5. Substitution: replacing an unattainable or unacceptable instinctual object or emotion with one that is more accessible or tolerable
  6. Displacement / Transference: redirecting emotions from their original object to a substitute object that is somehow associated with the original one.
  7. Compensation: making amends for a perceived deficiency that cannot be eliminated (e.g., a physical defect) by excelling in some other way.
  8. Grandiosity: exaggerated feeling of power or influence over the threatening reality
  9. Idealization: ascribing power or influence to an existent or imaginary “savior” (an individual or a organization)
  10. Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation Intellectualization: thoroughly rationalizing a particular thought or action, by means of a misleading, but self-serving justification
  11. Projection: incorrectly attributing to others any objectionable thoughts or actions. According to Sigmund Freud, projection makes a person perceive his objectionable character traits in others as a means of avoiding seeing those very faults in himself. For example, a man who cannot accept his own anger may cope with his feelings by accusing others as angry.
  12. Splitting: fragmenting, isolating, and focusing on only certain elements of the threatening reality, instead of considering the complexity brought about by the crisis as a coherent whole

Idea for Impact: It pays to familiarize yourself with these twelve defense mechanisms and be able to identify them in how you (and others) react to emotionally charged situations, especially in close relationships. Defense mechanisms are natural forms of self-protection. However, used excessively, they can turn out to be pathological.

Reference: Cheryl Travers, “Handling the Stress” in Michael Bland (Ed.) Communicating out of a Crisis (1998)

Realize the Truth Yourself

So much of what you’ll hear and what you’re taught may turn out to be incorrect on closer scrutiny.

Whether it’s advice from the experts, what you hear in the media, or what your mother told you, if it is of any consequence, take the time to work out for yourself whether it is factual.

Swami Vivekananda on Realizing the Truth Yourself The great Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) once instructed, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a thing because another man has said it was true. Do not believe in words because they are hallowed by tradition. Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out. That is realization.”

Idea for Impact: It’s not sensible to believe any assertion unless you have good reason for doing so. If you care whether your beliefs about the world are reliable, you must establish them on the sound, relevant evidence. Until you can organize that evidence and determine whether a belief is true or isn’t, you must suspend your judgment. The celebrated British mathematician, logician, and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) wrote in Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel (1917,)

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.

Gambler’s Fallacy is the Failure to Realize How Randomness Rules Our World

Gambler's Fallacy is the Failure to Realize How Randomness Rules Our World

The Gambler’s Fallacy is the misleading belief that the probability of a specific occurrence in a random sequence is dependent on preceding events—that its probability will increase with each successive occasion on which it fails to occur.

Suppose that you roll a fair die 14 times and don’t get a six even once. According to the Gambler’s Fallacy, a six is “long overdue.” Thus, it must be a good wager for the 15th roll of the dice. This conjecture is irrational; the probability of a six is the same as for every other roll of the dice: that is, 1/6.

Chance Events Don’t Have Memories

In practical terms, the Gambler’s Fallacy is the hunch that if you play long enough, you will eventually win. For example, if you toss a fair coin and flip heads five times in a row, the Gambler’s Fallacy suggests that the next toss may well flip a tail because it is “due.” In actuality, the results of previous coin flips have no bearing on future coin flips. Therefore, it is poor reasoning to assume that the probability of flipping tails on the next coin-toss is better than one-half.

Gambler's Fallacy: Chance Events Don't Have Memories A classic example of the Gambler’s Fallacy is when parents who’ve had children of the same sex anticipate that their next child ought to be of the opposite sex. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) was the first to document the Gambler’s Fallacy. In Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1796,) Laplace identified an instance of expectant fathers trying to predict the probability of having sons. These men assumed that the ratio of boys to girls born must be fifty-fifty. If adjacent villages had high male birth rates in the recent past, they could predict more birth of girls in their own village.

There Isn’t a Lady Luck or an “Invisible Hand” in Charge of Your Game

The Gambler’s Fallacy is what makes gambling so addictive. Gamblers normally think that gambling is an intrinsically fair-minded system in which any losses they’ll incur will eventually be corrected by a winning streak.

In buying lottery tickets, as in gambling, perseverance will not pay. However, human nature is such that gamblers have an irrational hunch that if they keep playing, they will eventually win, even if the odds of winning a lottery are remote. However, the odds of winning the jackpot remain unchanged … every time people buy lottery tickets. Playing week after week doesn’t change their chances. What’s more, the odds remain the same even for people who have previously won the lottery.

Gambler’s Fallacy Coaxed People to Lose Millions in Monte Carlo in 1913

Gambler's Fallacy Coaxed People to Lose Millions in Monte Carlo in 1913 The Gambler’s Fallacy is also called the Monte Carlo Fallacy because of an extraordinary event that happened in the renowned Monte Carlo Casino in the Principality of Monaco.

On 18-August-1913, black fell 26 times in a row at a roulette table. Seeing that that the roulette ball had fallen on black for quite some time, gamblers kept pushing more money onto the table assuming that, after the sequence of blacks, a red was “due” at each subsequent spin of the roulette wheel. The sequence of blacks that occurred that night is an unusual statistical occurrence, but it is still among the possibilities, as is any other sequence of red or black. As you may guess, gamblers at that roulette table lost millions of francs that night.

Gambler’s Fallacy is The False Assumption That Probability is Affected by Past Events

The Gambler’s Fallacy is frequently in force in casual judgments, casinos, sporting events, and, alas, in everyday business and personal decision-making. This common fallacy is manifest by the belief that a random event is more likely to occur because it has not happened for a time (or a random event is less likely to occur because it recently happened.)

  • While growing up in India, I often heard farmers discuss rainwater observing that, if the season’s rainfall was below average, they worry about protecting their crops during imminent protracted rains because the rainfall needs to “catch-up to a seasonal average.”
  • Gambler's Fallacy in soccer / football penalty shootouts In soccer / football, kickers and goalkeepers are frequently prone to the Gambler’s Fallacy during penalty shootouts. For instance, after a series of three kicks in the same direction, goalkeepers are more likely to dive in the opposite direction at the fourth kick.
  • In the episode “Stress Relief” of the fifth season of the American TV series The Office, when the character Jim Halpert learns that his fiancee Pam Beesley‘s parents are divorcing, he quotes the common statistic that 50% of marriages wind up in divorce. Halpert then comments that, because his parents are not divorced, it is only reasonable that Pam’s parents are getting divorced.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is a Powerful and Seductive Illusion of Control Over Events That are Not Controllable

Don’t be misled by the Gambler’s Fallacy. Be aware of the certainty of statistical independence. The occurrence of one random event has no statistical bearing upon the occurrence of the other random event. In other words, the probability of the occurrence of a random event is never influenced by a previous, or series of previous, arbitrary events.

Idea for Impact: Be skeptical of most judgments about probabilities. Never rely exclusively on your intuitive sense in evaluating probable events. In general, relying exclusively on your gut feeling or your hunches in assessing probabilities is usually not a reason to trust the assessment, but to distrust it.

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire People tend to have contempt for ideas that they disagree with. What’s worse is the possibility that some people, when presented with information that goes against their beliefs, may not only snub their challengers, but also double down on their original viewpoints. Cognitive psychologists call this the backfire effect.

For instance, voters have been shown to judge the political candidate they support even more favorably after the candidate is attacked by the other party. In the same way, parents opposed to vaccinations have been shown to become more convinced of their alleged apprehension that vaccination causes autism after reviewing studies showing that vaccinating their kids is the best course of action.

The backfire effect explains why, when people argue against conflicting information strongly enough, they wind up with more supportive arguments for their cause, which further aligns them with their preexisting positions.

The backfire effect is related to confirmation bias—the rampant propensity to seek, interpret, synthesize, and recall information in a way that substantiates one’s preconceptions. For instance, when people read an article that describes both sides of an issue, they tend to select that side that they happen to agree with—thus reinforcing their viewpoints.

See also: the phenomenon of group polarization explains why people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs.

The Power of Counterintuitive Thinking

“The All-embracing quality of the great virtue follows alone from the Tao … Only with Tao can follow the right path,” wrote Laozi in Tao Te Ching.

Translated roughly as “the way of integrity,” the Tao Te Ching is mostly a work of maxims of varying length; but it frequently quotes traditional poems, songs, and hymns.

'Tao Te Ching' by Stephen Mitchell (ISBN 0061142662) While the normative meaning of the word ‘Tao’ is just “path” or “way,” the text’s dominant theme is the spirit or quality of mind one needs to cultivate.

Here’s a verse from Tao Te Ching that advocates the power of counterintuitive thinking:

A good soldier is never aggressive;
A good fighter is never angry.
 
The best way of conquering an enemy
Is to win him over by not antagonizing him.
 
The best way of employing a man
Is to serve under him.
 
This is called the virtue of non-striving!
This is called using the abilities of men!
This is called being wedded to Heaven as of old!

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking

Many High-IQ People Tend to Be Overthinkers: They Incessantly Overanalyze Everything

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking There’s this old Zen parable that relates how over-analysis is a common attribute of intelligent people.

A Zen master was resting with his quick-witted disciple. At one point, the master took a melon out of his bag and cut it in half for the two of them to eat.

In the middle of the meal, the enthusiastic disciple said, “My wise teacher, I know everything you do has a meaning. Sharing this melon with me may be a sign that you have something to teach me.”

The master continued eating in silence.

“I understand the mysterious question in your silence,” insisted the student. “I think it is this: the excellent taste of this melon that I am experiencing … is the taste on the melon or on my tongue …”

The master still said nothing. The disciple got a bit frustrated at his master’s apparent indifference.

The disciple continued, ” … and like everything in life, this too has meaning. I think I’m closer to the answer; the pleasure of the taste is an act of love and interdependence between the two, because without the melon there wouldn’t be an object of pleasure and without pleasure …”

“Enough!” exclaimed the master. “The biggest fools are those who consider themselves the most intelligent and seek an interpretation for everything! The melon is good; please let this be enough. Let me eat it in peace!”

Intelligence Can Sometimes Be a Curse

The tendency to reason and analyze is a part of human nature. It is a useful trait for discerning the many complexities of life. It’s only natural that you could go overboard some times and over-analyze a point or an issue to such a degree that the objective becomes all but moot.

Don’t get me wrong. Intelligence is indeed a gift. But intelligence can trick you into thinking you should be overthinking and calculating everything you do. The more intelligent you are, the more investigative you will be. The more your brain analyzes people and events, the more time it will spend on finding flaws in everything.

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn’t Matter

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn't Matter Many intelligent people tend to be perfectionists. Their overanalysis often cripples their productivity, especially by leading them to undesirable, frustrating, and low-probability conclusions that can limit their ability to understand reality and take meaningful risks.

Intelligent people are too hard on themselves and others—family, friends, and co-workers. They can’t settle for anything less than perfect. They tend to be less satisfied with their achievements, their relationships, and practically everything that has a place in their life. What is more, many people with speculative minds hold idealistic views of the world and lack a sound acumen about coping with the practical world.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Make Everything Seem Worse Than it Actually is!

Thinking too much about things isn’t just a nuisance for you and others around you; it can take a toll on your well-being and on your relationships.

Check your tendency to overthink and overanalyze everything. Don’t twist and turn every issue in your head until you’ve envisaged the issue from all perspectives.

Sometimes it does help to overthink and be cautious about potential risks and downfalls. But most times, it’s unnecessary to ruminate excessively. Don’t make everything seem worse than it actually is. Set limits and prioritize. Learn to let go and manage your expectations.

To avoid overthinking, use my 5-5-5 technique. Ask yourself if your decision will matter 5 weeks, 5 months, and 5 years in the future. If your answer is ‘no,’stop stressing yourself out!

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.